Authors: Sue Grafton
“L” is for Lawless
A Kinsey Millhone Mystery
by Sue Grafton
I don't mean to bitch, but in the future I intend to hesitate before I do a favor for the friend of a friend. Never have I taken on such a load of grief. At the outset, it all seemed so
I swear there's no way I could have guessed what was coming down. I came
close to death and, perhaps worse (for my fellow dental phobics), within a hairbreadth of having my two front teeth knocked out. Currently I'm sporting a knot on my head that's the size of my fist. And all this for a job for which I didn't even get paid!
The matter came to my attention through my landlord, Henry Pitts, whom everybody knows I've been half in love with for years. The fact that he's eighty-five (a mere fifty years my senior) has never seemed to alter the basic impact of his appeal. He's a sweetheart and he seldom asks me for anything, so how could I refuse? Especially when his request seemed so harmless on the face of it, without the faintest suggestion of the troubles to come.
It was Thursday, November twenty-first, the week before Thanksgiving, and wedding festivities were just getting under way. Henry's older brother William was to marry my friend Rosie, who runs the tacky little tavern in my neighborhood. Rosie's restaurant was traditionally closed on Thanksgiving Day, and she was feeling smug that she and William could get hitched without her losing any business. With the ceremony and reception being held at the restaurant, she'd managed to eliminate the necessity for a church. She'd lined up a judge to perform the nuptials, and she apparently considered that his services were free. Henry had encouraged her to offer the judge a modest honorarium, but she'd given him a blank look, pretending she didn't speak English that well. She's Hungarian by birth and has momentary lapses when it suits her purposes.
She and William had been engaged for the better part of a year, and it was time to get on with the big event. I've never been certain of Rosie's actual age, but she has to be close to seventy. With William pushing eighty-eight, the phrase "until death do us part" was statistically more significant for them than for most.
Before I delineate the nature of the business I took on, I suppose I should fill in a few quick personal facts. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a licensed investigator, female, twice divorced, without children or any other pesky dependents. For six years I'd had an informal arrangement with California Fidelity Insurance, doing arson and wrongful death claims in exchange for office space. For almost a year now, since the termination of that agreement, I'd been leasing an office from Kingman and Ives, a firm of attorneys here in Santa Teresa. Because of the wedding I was taking a week off, looking forward to rest and recreation when I wasn't helping Henry with wedding preparations. Henry, long retired from his work as a commercial baker, was making the wedding cake and would also be catering the reception.
There were eight of us in the wedding party. Rosie's sister, Klotilde, who was wheelchair bound, would be serving as the maid of honor. Henry was to be the best man, with his older brothers, Lewis and Charlie, serving as the ushers. The four of them — Henry, William, Lewis, and Charlie (also known collectively as "the boys" or "the kids") — ranged in age from Henry's eighty-five to Charlie's ninety-three. Their only sister, Nell, still vigorous at ninety-five, was one of two bridesmaids, the other being me. For the ceremony Rosie had elected to wear an off-white organza muumuu with a crown of baby's breath encircling her strangely dyed red hair. She'd found a bolt of lavish floral polished cotton on sale ... pink and mauve cabbage roses on a background of bright green. The fabric had been shipped off to Flint, Michigan, where Nell had "run up" matching muumuus for the three of us in attendance. I couldn't wait to try mine on. I was certain that, once assembled, the three of us would resemble nothing so much as a set of ambulatory bedroom drapes. At thirty-five, I'd actually hoped to serve as the oldest living flower girl on record, but Rosie had decided to dispense with the role. This was going to be the wedding of the decade, one I wouldn't miss for all the money in the world. Which brings us back to the "precipitating events," as we refer to them in the crime trade.
I ran into Henry at nine that Thursday morning as I was leaving my apartment. I live in a converted single-car garage that's attached to Henry's house by means of an enclosed breezeway. I was heading to the supermarket, where I intended to stock up on junk food for the days ahead. When I opened my door, Henry was standing on my front step with a piece of scratch paper and a tape dispenser. Instead of his usual shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops, he was wearing long pants and a blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
I said, "Well, don't you look terrific." His hair is stark white and he wears it brushed softly to one side. Today it was slicked down with water, and I could still smell the warm citrus of his aftershave. His blue eyes seem ablaze in his lean, tanned face. He's tall and slender, good-natured, smart, his manner a perfect blend of courtliness and nonchalance. If he wasn't old enough to be my granddaddy, I'd snap him up in a trice.
Henry smiled when he saw me. "There you are. Perfect. I was just leaving you a note. I didn't think you were home or I'd have knocked on the door instead. I'm on my way to the airport to pick up Nell and the boys, but I have a favor to ask. Do you have a minute?"
"Of course. I was on my way to the market, but that can wait," I said. "What's up?"
"Do you remember old Mr. Lee? They called him Johnny here in the neighborhood. He's the gentleman who used to live around the corner on Bay. Little white stucco house with the overgrown yard. To be accurate, Johnny lived in the garage apartment. His grandson, Bucky, and his wife have been living in the house."
The bungalow in question, which I passed in the course of my daily jog, was a run-down residence that looked as if it was buried in a field of wild grass. These were not classy folk, unless a car up on blocks is your notion of a yard ornament. Neighbors had complained for years, for all the good it did. "I know the house, but the name doesn't mean much."
"You've probably seen 'em up at Rosie's. Bucky seems to be a nice kid, though his wife is odd. Her name is Babe. She's short and plump, doesn't make a lot of eye contact. Johnny always looked like he was homeless, but he did all right."
I was beginning to remember the trio he described: old guy in a shabby jacket, the couple playing grab-ass, looking too young for marriage. I cupped a hand to my ear. "You've been using past tense. Is the old man dead?"
"I'm afraid so. Poor fellow had a heart attack and died four or five months back. I think it was sometime in July. Not that there was anything odd about it," Henry hastened to add. "He was only in his seventies, but his health had never been that good. At any rate, I ran into Bucky a little while ago and he has a problem he was asking me about. It's not urgent. It's just irksome and I thought maybe you could help."
I pictured an unmarked key to a safe-deposit box, missing heirs, missing assets, an ambiguity in the will, one of those unresolved issues that the living inherit from the newly departed. "Sure. What's the deal?"
"You want the long version or the short?"
"Make it long, but talk fast. It may save me questions."
I could see Henry warm to his subject with a quick glance at his watch. "I don't want to miss the flight, but here's the situation in a nutshell. The old guy didn't want a funeral, but he did ask to be cremated, which was done right away. Bucky was thinking about taking the ashes back to Columbus, Ohio, where his dad lives, but it occurred to him his grandfather was entitled to a military burial. I guess Johnny was a fighter pilot during World War Two, part of the American Volunteer Group under Claire Chennault. He didn't talk much about it, but now and then he'd reminisce about Burma, the air battles over Rangoon, stuff like that. Anyway, Bucky thought it'd be nicer: white marble with his name engraved, and that kind of thing. He talked to his dad about it, and Chester thought it sounded pretty good, so Bucky went out to the local Veterans Administration office and filled out a claim form. He didn't have all the information, but he did what he could. Three months went by and he didn't hear a thing.
He was just getting antsy when the claim came back, marked "Cannot Identify." With a name like John Lee, that wasn't too surprising. Bucky called the VA and the guy sent him another form to complete, this one a request for military records. This time it was only three weeks and the damn thing came back with the same rubber stamp. Bucky isn't dumb, but he's probably all of twenty-three years old and doesn't have much experience with bureaucracy. He called his dad and told him what was going on. Chester got right on the horn, calling Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, which is where the Air Force keeps personnel files. I don't know how many people he must have talked to, but the upshot is the Air Force has no record of John Lee, or if they do, they won't talk. Chester is convinced he's being stonewalled, but what can he do? So that's where it stands. Bucky's frustrated and his dad's madder than a wet hen. They're absolutely determined to see Johnny get what he deserves. I told 'em you might have an idea about what to try next."
"They're sure he was really in the service?"
"As far as I know."
I felt an expression of skepticism cross my face. "I can talk to Bucky if you want, but it's not really an area I know anything about. If I'm hearing you right, the Air Force isn't really saying that he wasn't
All they're saying is they can't identify him from the information Bucky's sent."
"Well, that's true," Henry said. "But until they locate his records, there isn't any way they can process the claim."
I was already beginning to pick at the problem as if it were a knot in a piece of twine. "Wasn't it called the Army Air Force back in those days?"
"What difference would that make?"
"His service records could be kept somewhere else. Maybe the army has them."
"You'd have to ask Bucky about that. I'm assuming he's already tried that line of pursuit."
"It could be something simple ... the wrong middle initial, or the wrong date of birth."
"I said the same thing, but you know how it is. You look at something so long and you don't even really see it. It probably won't take more than fifteen or twenty minutes of your time, but I know they'd be glad to have the input. Chester's out here from Ohio, wrapping up some details on his father's probate. I didn't mean to volunteer your services, but it seems like a worthy cause."
"Well, I'll do what I can. You want me to pop over there right now? I've got the time if you think Bucky's home."
"He should be. At least he was an hour ago. I appreciate this, Kinsey. It's not like Johnny was a close friend, but he's been in the neighborhood as long as I have and I'd like to see him treated right."
"I'll give it a try, but this is not my bailiwick."
"I understand, and if it turns out to be a pain, you can dump the whole thing."
I shrugged. "I guess that's one of the advantages in not being paid. You can quit any time you want."
"Absolutely," he said.
I locked my front door while Henry headed toward the garage, and then I waited by the drive while he backed the car out. On special occasions he drives a five-window coupe, a 1932 Chevrolet with the original bright yellow paint. Today, he was taking the station wagon to the airport since he'd be returning with three passengers and countless pieces of luggage. "The sibs," as he called them, would be in town for two weeks and tended to pack for every conceivable emergency. He eased to a stop and rolled down the window. "Don't forget you're joining us for dinner."
"I didn't forget. This is Lewis's birthday, right? I even bought him a present."
"Well, you're sweet, but you didn't have to do that."
"Oh, right. Lewis always tells people not to buy a present, but if you don't, he pouts. What time's the celebration?"
"Rosie's coming over at five forty-five. You can come any time you want. You know William. If we don't eat promptly, he gets hypoglycemic."
"He's not going with you to the airport?"
"He's being fitted for his tux. Lewis, Charlie, and I get fitted for ours this afternoon."
"Very fancy," I said. "I'll see you later."
I waved as Henry disappeared down the street and then let myself out the gate. The walk to the Lees' took approximately thirty seconds — six doors down, turn the corner, and there it was. The style of the house was hard to classify, a vintage California cottage with a flaking stucco exterior and a faded red-tile roof. A two-car garage with dilapidated wooden doors was visible at the end of the narrow concrete drive. The scruffy backyard was now the home of a half-dismantled Ford Fairlane with a rusted-out frame. The facade of the house was barely visible, hidden behind unruly clusters of shoulder-high grass. The front walk had been obscured by two mounds of what looked like wild oats, brushy tops tilting toward each other across the path. I had to hold my arms aloft, wading through the weeds, just to reach the porch.
I rang the bell and then spent an idle moment picking burrs from my socks. I pictured microscopic pollens swarming down my gullet like a cloud of gnats, and I could feel a primitive sneeze forming at the base of my brain. I tried to think about something else. Without even entering the front door, I could have predicted small rooms with rough stucco arches between, offset perhaps by ineffectual attempts to "modernize" the place. This was going to be pointless, but I rang the bell again anyway.