Authors: Joseph Hansen
For my brother Bob
E WAS QUITTING
. But notifying all the insurance companies in the West he’d done death claims investigations for in recent years turned out to be a long job. He had sat down to do it after lunch, and was still typing away in a lonely little island of lamplight in the looming, raftered room when Cecil Harris walked in at midnight. A field reporter for television news, the tall, lanky young black lived with Dave. He ambled down the room, glanced over Dave’s shoulder as he passed the desk, hung his jacket on the hat tree, and rattled glasses and bottles at the bar.
“I didn’t mean for you to work so hard,” he said. “Let me put that on our computer. You only need to write one letter. Give me the list of addresses. Send the same letter everyplace, just a different salutation each time.”
Dave ground a finished sheet wearily out of the little typewriter, laid the page aside with its envelope, closed the case of the portable, put it into a deep lower drawer of the desk, and closed the drawer. He ached between the shoulder blades. “They’d know it was a form letter.”
“There’s a daisy-wheel printer in the program directors office. I can use it at night.” Cecil handed Dave a Glenlivet on ice in a stocky glass. “Daisy-wheel printer—nobody would know it wasn’t typed.”
“I’d know,” Dave said. “And no one deserves to be treated that way.” He took off the glasses he used for reading and writing, and laid them on the desk. “Not even insurance executives.” He stood, stretched, picked up his cigarettes and lighter from the desk, and carried these, with his drink, to the corduroy couch that faced the fireplace. He dropped onto it. Cecil sat down beside him and Dave put a light kiss on his mouth. “Thanks for the offer.”
“Hell,” Cecil said, “I was the one who talked you into it.” For months, he had been asking Dave to quit. Dave’s balking had been partly play-acting, but Cecil hadn’t seen that, and now he was feeling guilty. He gave Dave a worried glance. “Up to me to try to make it easy, if I can.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Dave said. “I’ll work it out.” He tasted the scotch, and lit a cigarette. “Why not look at it this way? I was sharpening my typing skills. To write my memoirs, right?” Cecil moaned. Dave changed the subject. “And what did you do today?”
Cecil took a breath. “Down in San Pedro County, there’s a place I bet you never heard of. The Old Fleet marina.” It had been there twenty-five years. Dave had heard of it, had even been there sometime, though he forgot why. But he didn’t say this. Cecil sipped brandy, hummed gratefully at the taste, leaned his head back. “Half-dead factories and warehouses all around, windows smashed out. Oil derricks. Wobbly docks, posts all crusty with barnacles below the water. Water dark and greasy. Crowd of old boats, rusting away, rotting away. Some don’t even have motors.”
“A floating junkyard?” Dave said.
Cecil shook his head. “Home. People living on those boats.” He sat forward, elbows on knees, turning the brandy snifter in long fingers, watching it glumly. “Been living there for years, some of them.”
“And you drove down there with a camera crew?”
Cecil nodded. “Four this afternoon.”
“What was the lead?” Dave said.
“The boat folks are being ousted. In sixty days. And most of them don’t have the money to lease mooring spaces at good marinas.”
“The good ones have waiting lists years long anyway,” Dave said. “And they don’t allow living on board.”
“Right. The Old Fleet was the only one that did, and the only cheap one. But, even if there was another, those with no engines—they’d have to be towed there, and towing comes expensive.” He shook his head, gloomily drank from the snifter. “Money sure can make people heartless.”
“It’s a five-thousand-year-old trend,” Dave said. “Who has the money this time?”
“Name of Le Van Minh,” Cecil said. “A Vietnamese importer. Lives here. Residency permit. He’s owned the place for years. Now developers want to buy it, gentrify it, build condos all around, fancy restaurants and shops. The Old Fleet boaties are protesting. The protest was the news story, really. But they’re poor. They can’t win.”
Dave said, “They probably couldn’t win if they were rich.” He snuffed his cigarette, knocked back the rest of his scotch, set down the glass. “These days, you see something you want—factory, fast-food outlet, supermarket chain—and you’ve got the money, you get it, regardless of how the owner feels. It’s called a hostile takeover.” He pushed up off the couch. “Don’t ask me to explain it.”
“I don’t guess Le minds selling,” Cecil said. “He just owns it. I don’t think it means anything to him. Just another investment. Don’t suppose he ever saw it. Boat folks claim he only just heard there were people living there.”
Dave winced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Dave, the demon typist, is tired,” he said.
“Let’s go to bed,” Cecil said.
Dave walked in from the brick courtyard, the taste of coffee and blueberry muffins lingering in his mouth. He had just seen Cecil off to work in his flame-painted, blue-carpeted van. It was September, staffers were taking late vacations, Cecil was working double shifts this week. Dave ought to have factored that into his retirement plans. He had counted on Cecil’s company during the days. Living alone he had never liked. He lit a cigarette, and leaned in the doorway, studying the room. Books had stacked up on the floor, against the pine plank walls. Books cluttered the brick surround of the fireplace, the desk and bar at the far end of the long room, the golden oak mission-style library table that stood behind the couch.
He had lived for years in this strange place on Horseshoe Canyon Trail—the two main buildings had started as stables, and in damp weather still smelled faintly of horse. But though Amanda, his very young stepmother, had put up open sleeping lofts here, had modernized the cook shack, installed clerestory windows and split-leveled the floor of the front building, Dave himself hadn’t marked the place much. He’d been too busy. He had bought Navajo rugs for this building, some Mexican pottery pieces for the front building, but he’d never hung any pictures, and he liked pictures. He liked tall bookcases too, but the only ones here he’d slapped up back by the desk when he first moved in.
Well, now he wasn’t busy anymore, was he? He had time to build all the bookshelves he wanted. This morning, while Cecil showered, Dave had signed, sealed, and stamped the letters, bundled them with a rubber band, and walked them out to the roadside box for the mailman to take away in his red, white, and blue jeep. Dave had made it official. The rest of his life was his own. And the first days of it, he was going to give to bookshelves and pictures—those watercolors by Larry Johns he’d bought last year, nice, loose, sure-handed sketches of the surf, rocks, dunes around the handsome beach house Johns shared with Tom Owens. Owens was an architect whose life Dave had saved a couple of times—the last time, because he’d put it in jeopardy.
He smiled grimly to himself, walked down the room and stood, head tilted, sizing up the long, knotty pine walls that flanked the fireplace. He liked the notion of bookshelves over, under, and around the windows. He turned, decided the pictures would look happiest lined up along the wall under the north sleeping loft. There was better height for the shelves on the fireplace wall. How many shelves? He had bought the lumber when he bought the place. It lay under blue plastic sheets sheltered by a vine-grown arbor at the back of the property. If termites and dry rot hadn’t eaten it, there were probably enough board feet there. Dave needed a yardstick. Full of cheerful purpose, he started for the cook shack, where the tools were kept. And stopped.
A young woman stood in the doorway. He blinked at her. She carried a case, but he didn’t think there was anything for sale in it. She was freckle-faced and sandy-haired, and wore a shirtmaker dress of crisp oyster-white twill with a floppy green bow at the throat. Her green-rimmed glasses were owlish, and she was doing her best to look prim and businesslike. He took her for a lawyer.
“Mr. Brandstetter,” she said, “I’m Tracy Davis. Maybe you remember me. I used to work for Mr. Greenglass.” She held out a business card. He went to her and took it, patted his shirt pocket, and remembered he’d left his reading glasses with the morning paper in the cook shack. Maybe the way he squinted at the card told her he couldn’t read it. “Public Defender,” she said, “San Pedro County. I need your help.”
“Sorry.” He held up both hands, took a backward step. “You’re too late. As of this morning, I’ve retired.”
The light went out of her face. “Oh, no.”
“Don’t feel bad,” he said. “There are plenty of good investigators around.” He started for his desk. “Come in. I’ll write down some names and numbers for you.”
She followed him. “It’s not that. The Public Defender’s office has its own investigators.”
He sat at the desk, opened a drawer, brought out his address book. “Then what are you doing here?”
“I need the best,” she said.
“That’s very flattering but”—he shook his head—“what kind of retiree would I be if I only lasted one day at it? Would you respect a man like that?”
“I asked Mr. Greenglass to recommend someone, and he said you were the only choice. I’ve read about you in
. Seen you on Ted Koppel, Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue. You’re the best.” She frowned. “Is it your health? You don’t look sick.”
“I’m fine.” Dave switched on the desk lamp, found a pen, and, squinting to make out street and phone numbers, wrote them on the back of the card she’d given him. “But I won’t be fine if I go back to work. I’ve been stabbed and shot, beaten up, burned out, half drowned, and run off roads too often lately. I’m tired of hospitals.” He handed her the card. “My reflexes are slowing down, and everything ugly is speeding up. It’s time I quit.”
“But Mr. Greenglass promised me,” she wailed. “If you don’t save Andy Flanagan, no one will. No one else can.”
“What makes Andy Flanagan so hard to save?”
“The man they say he killed is Vietnamese,” she said, “and Andy lost his arm in Nam. And everyone who knows him knows he hates those people. To this very day. Thirteen years later. He is not a winning man. He’s surly, full of hate and self-pity. He’s a bigot and a bully.”
“We don’t put people in jail for those things.” Dave stood up. “What’s the evidence?”
She laughed hopelessly. “Oh, God. Where do I begin?”
“How about over a cup of coffee?” Dave said. “Cook shack is across the courtyard, there.” He walked toward the sunlit front doorway. She followed. “What lovely rugs,” she said. “Does this mean you’ll take the case?”
“It means I’ll listen to you,” he said, “because I don’t think anybody is going to shoot me for that. At least not right away.”
Her heels rattled across old bricks scattered with the curled, dry leaves of the oak that spread its branches over the courtyard. “Listen and advise?” she wondered.
“Possibly.” He pulled open the cook shack screen door and held it so she could duck inside under his arm. “But not consent,” he said. Morning sunlight through tall windows dappled with leaf shadows the yellow enamel of cupboards. “Sit down.” He waved a hand at a scrubbed deal table surrounded by plain pine chairs, and began putting together coffeemaker and coffee at a stately old nickel-plated range that cunningly hid the latest gadgetry. “You drove a long way to get here. You hungry?”
“Just coffee, please. No food.” She pulled out a chair, sat down, slipped her shoulder bag off, and set it with the attaché case on the floor. “I’m too upset.”
Dave took mugs down from a cupboard, spoons from a drawer. “New at this, are you?” He brought mugs, spoons, napkins to the table. “This your first homicide?”