Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me. Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:
1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.
2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.
3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty’s hit list.
I report these events not necessarily in the order of importance, but in the order most easily explained.
For the record, my name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the State of California, (now) thirty-three years old, 118 pounds of female in a five-foot six-inch frame. My hair is dark, thick, and straight. I’d been accustomed to wearing it short, but I’d been letting it grow out just to see what it would look like. My usual practice is to crop my own mop every six weeks or so with a pair of nail scissors. This I do because I’m too cheap to pay twenty-eight bucks in a beauty salon. I have hazel eyes, a nose that’s been busted twice, but still manages to function pretty well I think. If I were asked to rate my looks on a scale of one to ten, I wouldn’t. I have to say, however, that I seldom wear makeup, so whatever I look like first thing in the morning at least remains consistent as the day wears on.
I’d been living since New Year’s with my landlord, Henry Pitts, an eighty-two-year-old gent whose converted single-car garage apartment I’d been renting for two years. This nondescript but otherwise serviceable abode had been blown sky-high and Henry had suggested that I move into his small back bedroom while my place was being rebuilt. There is, apparently, some law of nature decreeing that all home construction must double in its projected cost and take four times longer than originally anticipated. This would explain why, after five months of intensive work, the unveiling had finally been scheduled with all the fanfare of a movie premiere. I was uneasy about the new place because I wasn’t at all sure I’d like what Henry had come up with in the way of a floor plan and interior “day-core.” He’d been very secretive and extremely pleased with himself since he’d gotten city approval for the blueprints. I was worried that I’d take one look at the place and not be able to conceal my dismay. I’m a born liar, but I don’t do as well disguising what I feel. Still, as I’d told myself many times, it was his property and he could do anything he pleased. For two hundred bucks a month, was I going to complain? I don’t think so.
I woke at six o’clock that Thursday morning, rolled out of bed and into my running clothes. I brushed my teeth, splashed some water on my face, did a perfunctory hamstring stretch, and headed out Henry’s back door. May and June, in Santa Teresa, are often masked by fog—the weather as blank and dreary as the white noise on a TV set when the broadcast day is done. The winter beaches are stripped bare, massive boulders exposed as the tides sweep away the summer sand. We’d had a rainy March and April, but May had come in clear and mild. The sand was being returned as the spring currents shifted, the beaches restored for the tourists who would begin to pour into the town around Memorial Day and not leave again until Labor Day weekend had come and gone.
This dawn was spectacular, early morning clouds streaking the sky in dark gray tufts, sun tinting the underbelly an intense rose shade. The tide was out and the beach seemed to stretch toward the horizon in a silvery mirror of reflected sky. Santa Teresa was lush and green and the air felt soft, saturated with the smell of eucalyptus leaves and the newly cut grass. I jogged three miles and was home again thirty minutes later in time for Henry to sing “Happy birthday to yooouuu!” as he pulled a pan of freshly baked cinnamon rolls out of the oven. Being serenaded is not my favorite activity, but he did it so badly, I could only be amused and gratified. I showered, pulled on jeans, a T-shirt, and my tennis shoes, and then Henry handed me a gift-wrapped jeweler’s box that contained the newly minted brass key to my apartment. He was behaving like a kid, his lean, tanned face wreathed in shy smiles, his blue eyes glinting with barely suppressed excitement. In a two-person ceremonial procession, we walked from his back door, across the flagstone patio, to the front door of my place.
I knew what the exterior looked like—two stories of cream-colored stucco with rounded corners in a style I’d have to call Art Deco. Numerous hand-crankable windows had been installed and there was new landscaping, which Henry had done himself. To tell you the truth, the outward effect was unprepossessing, which I didn’t object to a bit. My prime anxiety had always been that he’d make the apartment too fancy for my taste.
We took a few minutes to survey the site, Henry explaining in detail all the hassles he’d gone through with the City Planning Commission and the Architectural Board of Review. I knew he was just dragging out the explanation to pump up the suspense and, in truth, I was feeling anxious, just wanting to get the whole thing over with. Finally, he allowed me to turn the key in the lock and the front door, with its porthole-shaped window, swung open. I don’t know what I’d expected. I’d tried not to conjure up fantasies of any kind, but what I saw left me inarticulate. The entire apartment had the feel of a ship’s interior. The walls were highly polished teak and oak, with shelves and cubbyholes on every side. The kitchenette was still located to the right where the old one had been, a galley-style arrangement with a pint-size stove and refrigerator. A microwave oven and trash compactor had been added. Tucked in beside the kitchen was a stacking washer-dryer, and next to that was a tiny bathroom.
In the living area, a sofa had been built into a window bay, with two royal blue canvas director’s chairs arranged to form a “conversational grouping.” Henry did a quick demonstration of how the sofa could be extended into sleeping accommodations for company, a trundle bed in effect. The dimensions of the main room were still roughly fifteen feet on a side, but now there was a sleeping loft above, accessible by way of a tiny spiral staircase where my former storage space had been. In the old place, I’d usually slept naked on the couch in an envelope of folded quilt. Now, I was going to have an actual bedroom of my own.
I wound my way up, staring in amazement at the double-size platform bed with drawers underneath. In the ceiling above the bed, there was a round shaft extending through the roof, capped by a clear Plexiglas skylight that seemed to fling light down on the blue-and-white patchwork coverlet. Loft windows looked out to the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. Along the back wall, there was an expanse of cedar-lined closet space with a rod for hanging clothes, pegs for miscellaneous items, shoe racks, and floor-to-ceiling drawers.
Just off the loft, there was a small bathroom. The tub was sunken with a built-in shower and a window right at tub level, the wooden sill lined with plants. I could bathe among the treetops, looking out at the ocean where the clouds were piling up like bubbles. The towels were the same royal blue as the cotton shag carpeting. Even the eggs of milled soap were blue, arranged in a white china dish on the edge of the round brass sink.
When the inspection tour was complete, I turned around and stared at him, speechless, a phenomenon that made Henry laugh aloud, tickled with himself that he’d executed his scheme so perfectly. Close to tears, I leaned my forehead against his chest while he patted at me awkwardly. I couldn’t ask for a better friend.
He left me alone soon afterward and I went through every cabinet and drawer, drinking in the scent of the wood, listening to the phantom creaking of the wind in the rafters overhead. It took me fifteen minutes to move my possessions in. Most of what I owned had been destroyed by the same bomb that flattened the old place. My all-purpose dress had survived, along with a favorite vest and the air fern Henry’d given me for Christmas. Everything else had been pulverized by black powder, blasting caps, and shrapnel. With the insurance money, I’d bought a few odds and ends—jeans and jumpsuits—and then I’d tucked the rest in a money market account, where it was merrily collecting interest.
At 8:45, I locked up, looked in on Henry briefly, and fumbled my way through yet another thank-you, which he waved away. Then I headed to the office, a quick ten-minute drive into town. I wanted to stay home, circling my house like a sea captain preparing to embark on some fabulous voyage, but I knew for a fact I had bills to pay and telephone calls to return.
I dispensed with several minor items, typing up a couple of invoices for two standing accounts. The last name on the list of phone calls was a Mrs. Clyde Gersh who had left a message on my machine late the day before with a request to get in touch at my convenience. I dialed her number, reaching for a yellow pad. The phone rang twice and then a woman picked up on the other end.
“Yes,” she said. Her tone held a note of caution as if I might be soliciting contributions for some fraudulent charity.
“Kinsey Millhone, returning your call.”
There was a split second of silence and then she seemed to recollect who I was. “Oh yes, Miss Millhone. I appreciate your being so prompt. I have a matter I’d like to discuss with you, but I don’t drive and I’d prefer not to leave the house. Is there any chance you might meet with me here sometime today?”
“Sure,” I said. She gave me the address and since I didn’t have anything else on the books, I said I’d be there within the hour. There didn’t seem to be any particular urgency to the matter, whatever it was, but business is business.
The address she’d given me was in the heart of town, not far from my office, one of the older blocks of single-family residences on a quiet tree-lined street. A tangle of shrubs formed a nearly impenetrable wall that separated the property from street view. I parked out front and let myself in through a creaking gate. The house was a shambling affair, two stories of dark green shingle set sideways on a lot dense with sycamores. I climbed pale gray wooden porch steps still fragrant with a recent repainting. The screen was open and I moved to the front door and pushed the bell, surveying the façade. The house was probably built in the twenties, not elegant by any means, but constructed on a large scale: comfortable, unpretentious, once meant for the middle class—out of reach for the average buyer in the current real estate market. A house like this would probably sell for over half a million these days and then require remodeling to bring it up to snuff.
An obese black woman, in a canary-yellow uniform with white collar and cuffs, let me in. “Mrs. Gersh’s out on the upstairs porch,” she said, indicating a staircase directly ahead. She lumbered off, apparently trusting me not to lift any cut-glass knickknacks from the occasional table to the right of the entranceway.
I had a momentary glimpse of the living room: a wide painted brick fireplace flanked by built-in bookcases with leaded-glass doors, lots of cotton shag carpeting in a much-trampled off-white. Creamy-painted wainscoting ran halfway up the wall with a pale print wallpaper above, extending across the ceiling in an inverted meadow of wildflowers. The room was shadowy and cried out for table lamps. The whole house was muffled in silence and smelled of cauliflower and curry.
I went up. When I reached the first landing, I saw that a second set of stairs branched down into the kitchen, where I could see a kettle bubbling on the stove. The maid who’d admitted me was now standing at the counter, chopping cilantro. Sensing my gaze, she turned and gave me an idle look. I moved on up.
At the top of the stairs, a screen door opened onto a broad, flat porch ringed with wooden planters filled with bright pink and orange geraniums. The main street, two blocks over, ebbed and flowed with traffic noises as sibilant as the sea. Mrs. Gersh was stretched out on a chaise longue, a plaid lap robe arranged across her legs. She might have been taking the air in a deck chair, waiting for the social director to advise her of the day’s shipboard activities. She had her eyes closed, a Judith Krantz novel face-down on her lap. The branches of a weeping willow draped long, lacy limbs across one corner of the porch, which was dappled in shade.
The day was mild, but the breeze seemed faintly chilly up here. The woman was stick-thin, with the dead-white complexion of someone profoundly ill. She struck me as the sort of woman who, a hundred years ago, might have spent long years in a sanitarium with a series of misdiagnoses stemming from anxiety, unhappiness, laudanum addiction, or an aversion to sex. Her hair was an icy blond, harshly bleached, and sparse. Bright red lipstick defined the width of her mouth and she wore matching bright red polish on nails cut short. Her Jean Harlow eyebrows had been plucked to an expression of frail astonishment. Her eyes were defined by false lashes that lay against her lower lids like sutures. I judged her to be in her fifties, but she might have been younger. Disease is an aging process in itself. Her chest was sunken, with breasts as flat as the flaps on an envelope. She wore a white silk blouse, expensive-looking pale gray gabardine slacks, vivid green satin slippers on her feet.
She was startled, eyes flying open in a blaze of blue. For a moment, she seemed disoriented and then she collected herself.
“You must be Kinsey,” she murmured. “I’m Irene Gersh.” She held out her left hand and clutched mine briefly, her fingers wiry and cold.
“Sorry if I frightened you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m a bundle of nerves. Please. Find a chair and sit. I don’t sleep well as a rule and I’m forced to catnap when I can.”
A quick survey showed three white mesh lawn chairs stacked together in one corner of the porch. I lifted the top chair, carried it over to the chaise, and sat down.
“I hope Jermaine will have the presence of mind to bring us tea, but don’t count on it,” she said. She shifted into a more upright position, adjusting the lap robe. She studied me with interest. It was my impression that she approved, though of what I couldn’t say. “You’re younger than I thought you’d be.”
“Old enough,” I said. “Today’s my birthday. I’m thirty-three.”
“Well, happy birthday. I hope I didn’t interrupt a celebration.”
“Not at all.”
“I’m forty-seven myself.” She smiled briefly. “I know I look like an old hag, but I’m relatively young . . . given California standards.”
“Have you been ill?”
“Let’s put it this way . . . I haven’t been well. My husband and I moved to Santa Teresa three years ago from Palm Springs. This was his parents’ house. When his father died, Clyde undertook his mother’s care. She passed away two months ago.”
I murmured something I hoped was appropriate.
“The point is, we didn’t need to move here, but Clyde insisted. Never mind my objections. He was raised in Santa Teresa and he was determined to come back.”
“I take it you weren’t enthusiastic.”
She flashed a look at me. “I don’t like it here. I never did. We used to come for visits, maybe twice a year. I have an aversion to the sea. I always found the town oppressive. There’s an aura about it that I find very dark. Everybody’s so smitten with the beauty of it. I don’t like the attitude of self-congratulation and I don’t like all the green. I was born and raised in the desert, which is what I prefer. My health has deteriorated since the day we arrived, though the doctors can’t seem to find anything wrong with me. Clyde is thriving, of course. I suspect he thinks this is a form of pouting on my part, but it’s not. It’s dread. I wake up every morning filled with debilitating anxiety. Sometimes it feels like a surge of electricity or a weight on my chest, almost overwhelming.”
“Are you talking about panic attacks?”
“That’s what the doctor keeps calling it,” she said.
I murmured noncommittally, wondering where this was all going to lead. She seemed to read my thoughts.
“What do you know about the Slabs?” she asked abruptly.
“Ah, doesn’t ring a bell, I see. Not surprising. The Slabs are out in the Mojave, to the east of the Salton Sea. During the Second World War, there was a Marine base out there. Camp Dunlap. It’s gone now. All that’s left are the concrete foundations for the barracks, known now as the Slabs. Thousands of people migrate to the Slabs every winter from the North. They call them snowbirds because they flee the harsh Northern winters. I was raised out there. My mother’s still there, as far as I know. Conditions are very primitive . . . no water, no sewer lines, no city services of any sort, but it costs nothing. The snowbirds live like gypsies: some in expensive RVs, some in cardboard shacks. In the spring, most of them disappear again, heading north. My mother’s one of the few permanent residents, but I haven’t heard from her for months. She has no phone and no actual address. I’m worried about her. I want someone to drive down there and see if she’s all right.”
“How often does she usually get in touch?”
“It used to be once a month. She hitches a ride into town and calls from a little café in Niland. Sometimes she calls from Brawley or Westmorland, depending on the ride she manages to pick up. We talk, she buys supplies and then hitchhikes back again.”
“She has an income? Social Security?”
Mrs. Gersh shook her head. “Just the checks I send. I don’t believe she’s ever had a Social Security number. All the years I remember, she supported the two of us with housework, which she did for cash. She’s eighty-three now and retired, of course.”
“How does mail reach her if she has no address?”
“She has a post office box. Or at least, she did.”
“What about the checks? Has she been cashing those?”
“They haven’t showed up in my bank statement, so I guess not. That’s what made me suspicious to begin with. She has to have money for food and necessities.”
“And when did you last hear from her?”
“Christmas. I sent her some money and she called to thank me. Things were fine from what she said, though to tell you the truth, she didn’t sound good. She does sometimes drink.”
“What about the neighbors? Any way to get through to them?”
She shook her head again. “Nobody has a telephone. You have no idea how crude conditions are out there. These people have to haul their own trash to the city dump. The only thing provided is a school bus for the children and sometimes the townspeople raise a fuss about that.”
“What about the local police? Any chance of getting a line on her through them?”
“I’ve been reluctant to try. My mother is very jealous of her privacy, even a bit eccentric when it comes right down to it. She’d be furious if I contacted the authorities.”
“Six months is a long time to let this ride.”
Her cheeks tinted slightly. “I’m aware of that, but I kept thinking I’d hear. Frankly, I haven’t wanted to brave her wrath. I warn you, she’s a horror, especially if she’s on a tear. She’s very independent.”
I thought about the situation, scanning the possibilities. “You mentioned that she has no regular address. How do I find her?”
She reached down and picked up a leather jewelry case she’d tucked under the chaise. She removed a small envelope and a couple of Polaroid snapshots. “This is her last note. And these are some pictures I took last time I was there. This is the trailer where she lives. I’m sorry I don’t have a snapshot of her.”
I glanced at the pictures, which showed a vintage mobile home painted flat blue. “When was this taken?”
“Three years ago. Shortly before Clyde and I moved up here. I can draw you a map, showing you where the trailer’s located. It’ll still be there, I guarantee. Once someone at the Slabs squats on a piece of land—even if it’s just a ten-by-ten pad of concrete—they don’t move. You can’t imagine how possessive people get about raw dirt and a few creosote bushes. Her name, by the way, is Agnes Grey.”
“You don’t have any pictures of her?”
“Actually, I don’t, but everyone knows her. I don’t think you’ll have a problem identifying her if she’s there.”
“And if I find her? What then?”
“You’ll have to let me know what kind of shape she’s in. Then we can decide what course of action seems best. I have to say, I chose you because you’re a woman. Mother doesn’t like men. She doesn’t do well among strangers to begin with, but around men she’s worse. You’ll do it then?”
“I can leave tomorrow if you like.”
“Good. I was hoping you’d say that. I’d like some way to reach you beyond business hours,” she said. “If Mother should get in touch, I want to be able to call without talking to your machine. An address, too, if you would.”
I jotted my home address and phone number on the back of my business card. “I don’t give this out often so please be discreet,” I said, as I handed it to her.
“Of course. Thank you.”
We went through the business arrangements. I’d brought a standard contract and we filled in the blanks by hand. She paid me an advance of five hundred dollars and sketched out a crude diagram of the section of the Slabs where her mother’s trailer stood. I hadn’t had a missing persons case since the previous June and I was eager to get to work. This felt like a routine matter and I considered the job a nice birthday present for myself.
I left the Gersh house at 12:15, drove straight to the nearest McDonald’s, where I treated myself to a celebratory Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
Copyright © 1990 by Sue Grafton. All rights reserved.