Authors: Susan Dunlap
“I know a Grady Hummacher. How many can there be?”
“In the oil industry?”
“I think so.”
so? Just how well do you know Hummacher?”
“He was at State with me, a dorm counselor my freshman year.”
“On the floor above me.”
“So it’s more like you knew
him than actually knew him?”
“No, I knew him all right. And I ran into him in the airport a month or so ago and we caught up.”
“And did he say he was planning to skip a meeting with Reston Adcock?”
“Grady’s missing, huh? You know, Kiernan, this is a perfect case for me. I mean, I know the guy. I—”
“Tchernak! I’ve already turned down the case.”
“If Adcock’s really worried, he’ll be on the horn to someone local by now.”
“I’m good at detecting, you know that.”
He had handled each job she’d grudgingly allowed him, and better than she had imagined. He could get anyone within a hundred miles of San Diego to open up. Women found him adorable, like the biggest puppy in the litter. For men, they remembered the offensive lineman who tossed Kevin Greene on his butt three times in one quarter. He was the all-pro lineman with the good instincts.
Get over your need to be the boss
Kiernan. Take him and give thanks.
Her throat squeezed in so hard she could barely force words out. “That’s not the problem, Tchernak.”
“What is the problem, then?”
She took a breath. “I worked in the coroner’s office. I don’t do well in bureaucracy. I don’t like to take orders—”
Tchernak grinned. “Yeah, right. You like to give them.”
She nodded, took a longer breath. She expected Tchernak to go into a riff on her love of command, but he didn’t. He loomed silent, waiting. The air in the room seemed to thicken and everything slowed. Ezra let out a moan, but neither of them looked at him. “The thing is, Tchernak, I don’t like to share. I wasn’t one of those kids who got a strawberry ice cream and said to all my friends, ‘You want a lick?’ I like—I need—to have things be just mine. This is my agency. It and what it’s gotten me are all I have. I can’t give it up. Or share it.”
Tchernak started to speak, but she stopped him.
“Don’t tell me you’ll always take orders, you’ll be just an employee. As it is, I’m afraid if I forget to check the letterhead each morning, I’ll find ‘O’Shaughnessy Investigations’ has been replaced with ‘O’Shaughnessy and Tchernak.’ Or more likely ‘Tchernak and O’Shaughnessy.’”
Tchernak didn’t seem to move, but his mouth had tightened. He bent toward her, hands braced on thighs, glaring as he must have at the defensive tackle. “You just want someone to keep house, cook, and walk your dog.”
It was of course exactly what she wanted. A more diplomatic woman would have equivocated. She nodded.
He lifted his chair, put it under the table, walked to the door of his flat, turned, and said, “I quit.”
DCOCK TAPPED HIS
finger on his polished teak desk. It was a thick finger, one muscled by work. A finger that should not be dialing his own phone. That’s what he had a secretary for. He hated being held captive while the phone rang, while the guy at the other end took his own time to get to the receiver. Adcock wasn’t a man made for waiting.
He who waits … waits
, and Reston Adcock had no time to waste. He stared at his finger, noting the dark lines in the creases, the stains of the oil he had discovered, oil he had rubbed into his palms and on his face and neck and bare chest in joy the first time he’d found a seeper. He’d screamed and laughed; he’d rolled in it then, the black anointing oil of riches.
He thought then that he’d never want his hands clean of it, that if it never washed off, he’d be a happy man, a happy magnate, a merry mogul. But it had washed off, and he’d gone after his second strike with only “greater reputation” in his pocket.
Twenty years since then. He’d lost count of the strikes. And the oil companies he’d worked for, the times he’d quit and set up on his own, the times he’d gone back on payroll. The Mercedes and the Chapter Elevens. The wives and the kids. And the college tuitions.
And Grady Hummacher. Where was Grady? The guy could have been himself twenty years ago, smelling oil in his sleep, sniffing it out for the joy of rubbing his hands in it. Hummacher had the best nose in the business. Loved the jungles and deserts, the wilder the better. Wanted to scale the highest peak on each continent, row the oceans, stand atop the earth and pound his chest, and stop to wink at the gods and men. And the girls. Adcock understood it all. No wonder he loved Hummacher. But he should never have trusted him with details. You don’t pound your chest with paper and pen in hand.
At least he’d had the sense to demand reports from Hummacher so mat he couldn’t be left totally out of the loop. Still, he never expected Hummacher to miss this meeting, the one that would set them both in gold. Grady was a party guy, but he wasn’t a fool. No matter what shape he may have been in, he’d get himself in
Unless he opened his mouth in the wrong place.
Dammit, he had to have the detective. He wasn’t about to ask her again; he didn’t operate that way. He needed some leverage. He could—
The phone rang.
“Is this Reston Adcock?”
“Kiernan O’Shaughnessy’s associate, Brad Tchernak. I think I can help you.”
HE SWOLLEN, BLOODY, TERRIFIED
African faces had filled Kiernan’s dreams, and she’d jolted up time after time, sweat-drenched and disoriented. The alarm woke her forty minutes earlier Saturday morning than if Tchernak had been driving her to the airport. The van company insisted on unloading passengers a full hour before their departure, not the twenty minutes any sensible woman preferred. The twenty minutes that always drove Tchernak crazy. If he hadn’t quit, he’d be pulling out of the driveway right now, describing how far off the ground her plane would be by the time she made it to the airport. It would serve her right, he’d be adding; any competent businesswoman should have the maturity not to make a contest out of every flight departure.
She smiled at the memory as she strolled to the gate for Las Vegas. She would miss Tchernak, no question about that. But he had been an aberration in her life. She was meant to be alone, she’d known that since she was twelve and her sister’s death left her with parents dead in spirit, and the Catholic community who no longer spoke to infidels like the suicide’s sister. Tchernak was as close to family, to belonging …But life moves on. This was best for both of them. And at least Tchernak had agreed to take care of Ezra in her absence. “No reason why
should suffer,” Tchernak had said by way of exit line as he disappeared into his half of the duplex. She’d watched him reach out, hand on the edge of the door, the urge to slam illustrated in every tense muscle. But of course he couldn’t. Ezra liked to roam through both units, keeping tabs on both his people.
Her eyes filled. Quickly she blinked back the threat of tears. She’d find Tchernak a place close by; Ezra could still see him.
The sour coffee and airplane pretzels arrived, supplanting the prosciutto-and-Emmentaler quiche, sourdough bagels, mixed melon slices, and still-hot espresso Tchernak would have sent with her. She silently acknowledged the gastronomic depth of her loss. She was hungry, but she would wait.
When the plane landed, she sprung the overhead compartment door while the stewardess was still on the speaker warning of luggage shifting during the trip. If the terminal at McCarran offered food, it was camouflaged by the blinking colored lights, the clanging bells and whirling winner sounds of the banks of slot machines. The very air seemed laced with caffeine, and everything about the place screamed,
! She’d wait till she picked up the rental car, cleared town, and spotted the first real food cafe along the road.
Minutes later the Las Vegas Strip rose from the sand like a plastic mirage, and was gone again before she could believe it had been there. There were one or two more city exits and then: nothing. No exits, no access roads, no gas or even a rest stop, much less real food. The only comfort was that her cell phone would not be ringing with nagging calls from Tchernak. The rumpled hills lay beside the highway like dying elephants laid tail to trunk. Once she turned onto 93, her only decision was made. Next stop would be the town of Gattozzi, and Jeff Tremaine; but that wasn’t for well over a hundred miles. The blacktop shot out straight ahead, bisecting the high desert; the morning sun seemed to bleach the land colorless. To her right, jacketed power lines ran like covered bridges in the air. In the nearly treeless, waterless, uninhabited desert the meticulously protected power lines were baffling.
An hour and a half into the drive she noticed a narrow strip of green pasture, ponds, cattle—southeastern Nevada’s answer to the Nile Valley. Thirst had settled like blotting paper in her throat. She longed to pull the car over, run into the pasture, and shove in among the slurping cows.
Jeff Tremaine had talked about the land here, but oddly she hadn’t pictured it like this. She’d known it would be brown and dry, but he hadn’t mentioned the subtle, seductive browns and violets in the distance, the isolated green strip of ranches and cottonwoods, the miles and hours that separated men from their deeds.
It was after eleven when she spotted the prefab truck stop inaptly called the Doll’s House. Unless those dolls were beneath the red light in the no-frills motel behind. In the cafe she hit the Dolls’ bathroom (Guys’ was around the corner), grabbed the two tallest bottles of water in the cooler and a bar of waxy chocolate Tchernak would gag at. “Why are the power lines covered?”
“Huh?” The boy proffered her change.
“The power lines, they’re jacketed, all the way from Las Vegas.”
“Oh, the shields? Birds were shitting on the power lines. Acid rotted ’em out. But these shields saved the day. Coated with poison. You check out the ground below?” He giggled. “Chorus line of corpses.”
She swerved to avoid a decaying crow as she pulled onto the highway and now recognized the gray and black lines that lined the road. On the horizon sun-bleached dirt darkened into red rock. Against it the piñon pines were greener, the rabbit sage bright yellow, and the gravel and stones not gray but silver. She passed through one small town and close by another that probably hadn’t changed since 1950. Pioche, the old mining town, sat too far up the knobby tan hill for close viewing, but she could still see the wires that had carried the ore buckets from the dead mine. There was an odd completeness to these tiny isolated places, as if the ensuing years and outside world were merely tales told beside the hearth.
When Jeff Tremaine had talked of coming back here, it had sounded like life without the possibility of parole. Now, as she turned off the highway onto Gattozzi’s Victorian main street, she wondered if she had heard Tremaine’s initial description with urban ears or if dry grass and duty were all he’d been able to see back then.
First Street slithered up the hillside, a two-lane main drag largely unchanged in the hundred years since prospectors and thieves shot it out in the muddy road and died on the covered wooden sidewalks. The wind and dirt had turned painted facades gray. The Gattozzi Saloon—Rooms by the Night, Week, Month—was a tall-windowed Victorian that must have outlasted its paint job by seventy years. Across the street a one-pump gas station beckoned drivers with promises of water, soda, sanitary supplies. Under the covered walkway signs in windows announced Sam’s Supplies, Masting’s Hardware, The 47th Street Deli. Kiernan smiled appreciatively as she pulled in by the red-and-white oilcloth-covered tables of the whimsically named cafe, walked back down past the Tin Nugget Bar to the door stenciled Jeffrey Tremaine, M.D.
She stopped outside, taken aback by the poverty of this weathered storefront. Was this the venerable practice he had taken over from his father? She had pictured it operated out of a venerable dwelling of the saloon’s vintage. But this was a spot available to anyone with a hundred dollars and a load of collectibles on the back of the truck. How little she really knew of Jeff Tremaine. Even her assumptions were turning out to be wrong.
The dry wind strafed her cheeks and she could smell the dirt and dust in it, unforgiving of those who stood too long waiting to decide. The November sun pricked weakly at her shoulders. She had to shove hard to open Tremaine’s door, and nearly leap out of the way as the wind thudded it closed behind her.
A woodstove crackled in the far corner, and a woman and child, both in jeans, sat on the nearest seats, across the room from the receptionist’s counter.
“You Dr. O’Shea?” the gray-haired receptionist asked.
“Dr. Tremaine may be at lunch. The mortuary’ll be unlocked. Autopsy room’s in the back.”
“Customers aren’t likely to walk out, huh?”
Outside, the wind seemed stronger, and winter had settled in under the sidewalk awning. Between her death-ridden nightmares and Tchernak’s quitting she had forgotten about winter. La Jolla winters merely meant more tourists on the beach. She pulled her brown bouclé jacket tighter around her ribs, but she didn’t feel any warmer. The jacket, black shirt, and brown pants made up her “every possibility” suit, created by her dressmaker to suit her five-foot frame. Her running shoes pretty much destroyed the image, but Jeff Tremaine hadn’t called her for her image.
The Constant Mortuary was one storefront wide, like Jeff’s office. Trade might be constant, but it was clearly not lucrative. Indeed the door was open. She stepped into a paneled room with a riser at one side. The viewing room had no one on view. “Jeff?” she called, pushing open the door to the back.
No answer. She considered and immediately discarded the idea of tracking Tremaine down at lunch. Not with the body so close, and the chance that one glance would prove Jeff had overreacted—again. She tried one door, then the next, and walked into a small, close room unbrightened by its one window a few feet from the next storefront. The air was close, and the grit on the window lock suggested it hadn’t been opened in years. The body would be in the fridge.