Looking back, it’s hard to remember if the low morale at California Fidelity originated with the death of one of the claims adjusters or the transfer of Gordon Titus, an “efficiency expert” from the Palm Springs office, who was brought in to bolster profits. Both events contributed to the general unrest among the CF employees, and both ended up affecting me far more than I would have imagined, given the fact that my association with the company had been, up to that point, so loose. In checking back through my calendar, I find a brief penciled note of the appointment with Gordon Titus, whose arrival was imminent when Parnell was killed. After that first meeting with Titus, I’d jotted, “s.o.b. extraordinaire!” which summarized my entire relationship with him.
I’d been gone for three weeks, doing a consumer investigative report for a San Diego company concerned about a high-level executive whose background turned out to be something other than he’d represented. The work had taken me all over the state, and I had a check in my pocket for beaucoup bucks by the time I wrapped up my inquiry on a Friday afternoon. I’d been given the option of remaining in San Diego that weekend at the company’s expense, but I woke up inexplicably at 3:00 a.m. with a primal longing for home. A moon the size of a dinner plate was propped up on the balcony outside my window, and the light falling across my face was almost bright enough to read by. I lay there, staring at the swaying shadow of palm fronds on the wall, and I knew that what I wanted most was to be in my own bed. I was tired of hotel rooms and meals on the road. I was tired of spending time with people I didn’t know well or expect to see again. I got out of bed, pulled my clothes on, and threw everything I had in my duffel bag. By 3:30 a.m. I’d checked out, and ten minutes later I was on the 405 northbound, heading for Santa Teresa in my new (used) VW bug, a 1974 sedan, pale blue, with only one wee small ding in the left rear fender. Classy stuff.
At that hour, the Los Angeles freeway system is just beginning to hum. Traffic was light, but every on ramp seemed to donate a vehicle or two, people pouring north to work. It was still dark, with a delicious chill in the air, a ground fog curling along the berm like puffs of smoke. To my right, the foothills rose up and away from the road, the tracts of houses tucked into the landscape showing no signs of life. The lights along the highway contributed a nearly ghostly illumination, and what was visible of the city in the distance seemed stately and serene. I always feel an affinity for others traveling at such an hour, as if we are all engaged in some form of clandestine activity. Many of the other drivers had oversize Styrofoam cups of coffee. Some were actually managing to wolf down fast food as they drove. With the occasional car window rolled down, I was treated to bursts of booming music that faded away as the cars passed me, changing lanes. A glance in my rearview mirror showed a woman in the convertible behind me emoting with vigor, belting out a lip-sync solo as the wind whipped through her hair. I felt a jolt of pure joy. It was one of those occasions when I suddenly realized how happy I was. Life was good. I was female, single, with money in my pocket and enough gas to get home. I had nobody to answer to and no ties to speak of. I was healthy, physically fit, filled with energy. I flipped on the radio and chimed in on a chorus of “Amazing Grace,” which didn’t quite suit the occasion but was the only station I could find. An early morning evangelist began to make his pitch, and by the time I reached Ventura, I was nearly redeemed. As usual, I’d forgotten how often surges of goodwill merely presage bad news.
The usual five-hour drive from San Diego was condensed to four and a half, which put me back in Santa Teresa at a little after eight. I was still feeling wired. I decided to hit the office first, dropping off my typewriter and the briefcase full of notes before I headed home. I’d stop at a supermarket somewhere along the way and pick up just enough to get me through the next two days. Once I unloaded my duffel at home, I intended to grab a quick shower and then sleep for ten hours straight, getting up just in time for a bite of supper at Rosie’s down the street from me. There’s nothing quite as decadent as a day in the sack alone. I’d turn my phone off, let the machine pick up, and tape a note to the front door saying “Do Not Bother Me.” I could hardly wait.
I expected the parking lot behind my office building to be deserted. It was Saturday morning and the stores downtown wouldn’t open until ten. It was puzzling, therefore, to realize that the area was swarming with people, some of whom were cops. My first thought was that maybe a movie was being shot, the area cordoned off so the cameras could roll without interruption. There was a smattering of onlookers standing out on the street and the same general air of orchestrated boredom that seems to accompany a shoot. Then I spotted the crime scene tape and my senses went on red alert. Since the lot was inaccessible, I found a parking place out at the curb. I removed my handgun from my purse and tucked it into my briefcase in the backseat, locked the car doors, and moved toward the uniformed officer who was standing near the parking kiosk. He turned a speculative eye on me as I approached, trying to decide if I had any business at the scene. He was a nice-looking man in his thirties with a long, narrow face, hazel eyes, closely trimmed auburn hair, and a small mustache. His smile was polite and exposed a chip in one of his front teeth. He’d either been in a fight or used his central incisors in a manner his mother had warned him about as a child. “May I help you?”
I stared up at the three-story stucco building, which was mostly retail shops on the ground floor, businesses above. I tried to look like an especially law-abiding citizen instead of a free-lance private investigator with a tendency to fib. “Hi. What’s going on? I work in that building and I was hoping to get in.”
“We’ll be wrapping this up in another twenty minutes. You have an office up there?”
“I’m part of the second-floor insurance complex. What was it, a burglary?”
The hazel eyes did a full survey and I could see the caution kick in. He didn’t intend to disseminate information without knowing who I was. “May I see some identification?”
“Sure. I’ll just get my wallet,” I said. I didn’t want him to think I was whipping out a weapon. Cops at a crime scene can be edgy little buggers and probably don’t appreciate sudden moves. I handed him my billfold flipped open to my California driver’s license with the photostat of my P.I. license visible in the slot below. “I’ve been out of town and I wanted to drop off some stuff before I headed home.” I’d been a cop myself once, but I still tend to volunteer tidbits that are none of their business.
His scrutiny was brief. “Well, I doubt they’ll let you in, but you can always ask,” he said, gesturing toward a plain-clothes detective with a clipboard. “Check with Sergeant Hollingshead.”
I still didn’t have a clue what was going on, so I tried again. “Did someone break into the jewelry store?”
“Really?” Scanning the parking lot, I could see the cluster of police personnel working in an area where the body probably lay. Nothing was actually visible at that remove, but most of the activity was concentrated in the vicinity. “Who’s been assigned to the case, Lieutenant Dolan, by any chance?”
“That’s right. You might try the mobile crime lab if you want to talk to him. I saw him head in that direction a few minutes ago.”
“Thanks.” I crossed the parking lot, my gaze flickering to the paramedics, who were just packing up. The police photographer and a guy with a notebook doing a crime scene sketch were measuring the distance from a small ornamental shrub to the victim, whom I could see now, lying facedown on the pavement. The shoes were man-size. Someone had covered the body with a tarp, but I could still see the soles of his Nikes, toes touching, heels angled out in the form of a V.
Lieutenant Dolan appeared, heading in my direction. When our paths intersected, we shook hands automatically, exchanging benign pleasantries. With him, there’s no point in barging right in with all the obvious questions. Dolan would tell me as much or as little as suited him in his own sweet time. Curiosity only makes him stubborn, and persistence touches off an inbred crankiness. Lieutenant Dolan’s in his late fifties, not that far from retirement from what I’d heard, balding, baggy-faced, wearing a rumpled gray suit. He’s a man I admire, though our relationship has had its antagonistic moments over the years. He’s not fond of private detectives. He considers us a useless, though tolerable, breed and then only as long as we keep off his turf. As a cop, he’s smart, meticulous, tireless, and very shrewd. In the company of civilians, his manner is usually remote, but in a squad room with his fellow officers, I’ve caught glimpses of the warmth and generosity that elicit much loyalty in his subordinates, qualities he never felt much need to trot out for me. This morning he seemed reasonably friendly, which is always worrisome.
“Who’s the guy?” I said finally.
“Don’t know. We haven’t ID’d him yet. You want to take a look?” He jerked his head, indicating that I was to follow as he crossed to the body. I could feel my heart start to pump in my throat, the blood rushing to my face. In one of those tingling intimations of truth, I suddenly knew who the victim was. Maybe it was the familiar tire-tread soles of the running shoes, the elasticized rim of bright pink sweat pants, a glimpse of bare ankle showing dark skin. I focused on the sight with a curious sense of déjà vu. “What happened to him?”
“He was shot at close range, probably sometime after midnight. A jogger spotted the body at six-fifteen and called us. So far we don’t have the weapon or any witnesses. His wallet’s been lifted, his watch, and his keys.”
He leaned down and picked up the edge of the tarp, pulling it back to reveal a young black man, wearing sweats. As I glanced at the face in side view, I pulled a mental plug, disconnecting my emotions from the rest of my interior processes. “His name is Parnell Perkins. He’s a California Fidelity claims adjuster, hired about three months ago. Before that, he worked as a rep for an insurance company in Los Angeles.” The turnover among adjusters is constant and no one thinks anything about it.
“He have family here in town?”
“Not that I ever heard. Vera Lipton, the CF claims manager, was his immediate supervisor. She’d have his personnel file.”
“What about you?”
I shrugged. “Well, I haven’t known him long, but I consider him a good friend.” I corrected myself into past tense with a small jolt of pain. “He was really a nice guy . . . pleasant and capable. Generous to a fault. He wasn’t very open about his personal life, but then, neither am I. We’d have drinks together after work a couple of times a week. Sometimes the ‘happy hour’ stretched into dinner if both of us happened to be free. I don’t think he’d really had time to form many close friendships. He was a funny guy. I mean, literally. The man made me laugh.”
Lieutenant Dolan was making penciled notes. He asked me some apparently unrelated questions about Parnell’s workload, employment history, hobbies, girlfriends. Aside from a few superficial observations, I didn’t have much to contribute, which seemed strange to me somehow, given the sense of distress I was feeling. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Parnell. The back of his head was round, the hair cut almost to the scalp. The skin of the back of his neck looked soft. His eyes were open, staring blankly at the asphalt. What is life that it can vanish so absolutely in such a short period of time? Looking at Parnell, I was struck by the loss of animation, warmth, energy, all of it gone in an instant, never to return. His job was done. Now the rest of us were caught up in the clerical work that accompanies any death, the impersonal busywork generated by our transfer from aboveground to below.
I checked the slot where Parnell usually parked his car. “I wonder where his car went. He has to drive in from Colgate, so it should be here someplace. It’s American made, a Chevrolet, I think, eighty or eighty-one, dark blue.”
“Might have been stolen. We’ll see if we can locate the vehicle. I don’t suppose you know the license number off-hand.”
“Actually, I do. It’s a vanity plate—PARNELL—a present to himself on his birthday last month. The big three-oh.”
“You have his home address?”
I gave Dolan the directions. I didn’t know the house number, but I’d driven him home on a couple of occasions, once when his car was being serviced and once when he got way too tipsy to get behind the wheel. I also gave Dolan Vera’s home number, which he jotted beside her name. “I’ve got a key to the office if you want to see his desk.”
“Let’s do that.”
For the next week, the killing was all anybody talked about. There’s something profoundly unsettling when murder comes that close to home. Parnell’s death was chilling because it seemed so inexplicable. There was nothing about him to suggest that he was marked for homicide. He seemed a perfectly ordinary human being just like the rest of us. As far as anyone could tell there was nothing in his current circumstances, nothing in his background, nothing in his nature, that would invite violence. Since there were never any suspects, we were made uncomfortably aware of our own vulnerability, haunted by the notion that perhaps we knew more than we realized. We discussed the subject endlessly, trying to dispel the cloud of anxiety that billowed up in the wake of his death.
I was no better prepared than anyone else. In my line of work, I’m not a stranger to homicide. For the most part, I don’t react, but with Parnell’s death, because of our friendship, my usual defenses—action, anger, a tendency to gallows humor—did little to protect me from the same apprehensiveness that gripped everyone else. While I find myself sometimes unwittingly involved in homicide investigations, it’s nothing I set out to do, and usually nothing I’d take on without being paid. Since no one had hired me to look into this one, I kept my distance and minded my own business. This was strictly a police matter and I figured they had enough on their hands without any “help” from me. The fact that I’m a licensed private investigator gives me no more rights or privileges than the average citizen, and no more liberty to intrude.
I was unsettled by the lack of media coverage. After the first splash in the papers, all reference to the homicide seemed to vanish from sight. None of the television news shows carried any follow-up. I had to assume there were no leads and no new information coming in, but it did seem odd. And depressing, to say the least. When someone you care about is murdered like that, you want other people to feel the impact. You want to see the community fired up and some kind of action being taken. Without fuel, even the talk among the CF employees began to peter out. Speculation flared and died, leaving melancholy in its place. The cops swept in and packed up everything in his desk. His active caseload was distributed among the other agents. Some relative of his flew out from the East Coast and closed his apartment, disposing of his belongings. Business went on as usual. Where Parnell Perkins had once been, there was now empty space, and none of us understood quite how to cope with that. Eventually, I would realize how all the pieces fit together, but at that point the puzzle hadn’t even been dumped out of the box. Within weeks, the homicide was superseded by the reality of Gordon Titus—Mr. Tight-Ass, as we soon referred to him—the VP from Palm Springs, whose transfer to the home office was scheduled for November 15. As it turned out, even Titus played an unwitting part in the course of events.
Copyright © 1991 by Sue Grafton. All rights reserved.
SUE GRAFTON entered the mystery field in 1982 with the publication of 'A' IS FOR ALIBI, which introduced female hard-boiled private investigator, Kinsey Millhone, operating out of the fictional town of Santa Teresa, (a.k.a. Santa Barbara) California. 'B' IS FOR BURGLAR followed in l985 and since then, she has added 18 novels to the series, now referred to as 'the alphabet’ mysteries. In addition, she’s published eight Kinsey Millhone short stories, and with her husband, Steven Humphrey, has written numerous movies for television, including “A Killer in the Family” (starring Robert Mitchum), “Love on the Run” (starring Alec Baldwin and Stephanie Zimbalist) and two Agatha Christie adaptations, “Sparkling Cyanide” and “Caribbean Mystery,” which starred Helen Hayes.
She is currently at work on the next alphabet mystery, U IS FOR…