The Night Searchers (A Sharon McCone Mystery)

BOOK: The Night Searchers (A Sharon McCone Mystery)
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For Karen and Ken Turner

Tobey too!

Starting over when you’ve pretty much lost everything dear to you in a material sense is one of the most difficult things a human being can do.

In my case, I’d lost my home on Church Street where I’d lived for over two decades and all that was in it to fire. Also my car and almost my life.

On the other hand, nobody had died, my neighbors’ houses hadn’t been damaged, and even my cats had survived unscathed. For those blessings, I’d thanked God.

As a long-ago-lapsed Catholic, I don’t thank God frequently or easily.

The list of things—some irreplaceable and some not—included photographs and mementoes; my diplomas from high school and UC–Berkeley. My favorite books, records, tapes, and DVDs. My collection—no, proliferation—of unusual paperweights, now cracked or shattered. My other collection of sequined baseball caps—red, gold, black with silver stars. The bookends—two rabbits purchased years ago at great cost from Gump’s by Hy—that supported my
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary
. The dictionary itself; I seldom used it any more, the Internet being quicker and easier, but sometimes I browsed through it, picking up esoteric etymology.

What is the esoteric etymology for
devastation
?

Hy and I are more fortunate than most disaster victims: we own two other homes: the ranch he inherited from his stepfather in the high desert country of Mono County and Touchstone, our getaway place—which a grateful client sold me for a dollar—on the Mendocino Coast. But both were inconvenient to our businesses in San Francisco. Hy’s firm, RI, had a
hospitality suite for clients that was currently vacant, so we moved in there. But we had nothing except the simple amenities RI provided.

Insurance money was coming, so we shopped for a new house. The very first day of our quest we found one on Avila Street in the Bay-side Marina district: Spanish mission style, with whitewashed stucco walls and a red-tiled roof. Spacious courtyard with a hot tub and—of all things—a garden gnome. Four bedrooms, one for us, two for at-home offices, one for guests.

I’ve always loved the Marina: on foggy days you can hear the horns bellowing out beyond the Gate, and when the sun breaks through, it seems to touch the district first. Hy was crazy about the house—he claimed it was the garden gnome that hooked him—so we put in an offer the next day.

Somebody outbid us. Gloom abounded in the RI hospitality suite, which we now thought too small and confining.

We continued looking: on Potrero Hill and Bernal Heights, where the sun shines most of the time; in Cole Valley, with its handsome—although prim—Edwardian homes; in the Haight and Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights. Nothing matched up to the “garden gnome house,” as we’d taken to calling it.

And then came the message from the real estate agent: the high bidder’s deal on the Avila Street house had fallen through; did we still want it? We signed the contract that evening.

We were on our way: starting over.

Now we got into consumerism in a big, bad way. Sofas for the living room: dark, buttery leather, to be grouped around the kiva fireplace; coffee and end tables, sturdy, so they could take abuse. We indulged ourselves and bought a Sleep Number bed (my side #35, Hy’s #55); a kitchen island with a wood-block top; a full set of All-Clad cookware. Dishes and flatware and
linens and towels. By the time we were ready to move in, when all of the above were waiting in the terra-cotta-tiled entryway to be released from their cardboard cartons, we both felt nauseated from acquiring. The house, which we’d loved so much, felt alien. Even the garden gnome looked bleak.

Our cats, Alex and Jessie, fared better than we did: after snooping around the house and sniffing every object, they fell into their usual patterns, mainly mowling for food and sleeping on our bed.

We decided to burrow in like them, and it worked.

1:20 p.m.

T
he eyes of the prospective client who sat across my desk were pale blue, with pupils whose depth seemed to have no end. Around each iris was a circle of darker blue, a stark contrast to the whites. The woman’s gaze skipped about my office—from the wall hangings to the carpeting to the bookcases and file cabinets—but never once touched on me. I finally drew her attention by tapping my pencil on her file.

The eyes fixed on mine. “I
did
see it. Even if the police and
he
don’t believe me.” She jerked her pointed chin at the man who stood behind her chair, hands on her shoulders.

“Cammie—” he began.

“Camilla! How many times have I told you my name’s Camilla?”

“Camilla.” He closed his eyes and the lines around his mouth whitened.

She shrugged his hands off and looked back at me. “Why is it so difficult to go back to your full name after a lifetime of nicknames? Why is it people like
him
can’t remember?”

Frankly, I was on the husband’s side.

Camilla and Jay Givens. Attractive young owners of a condo on Russian Hill, one of the city’s classier districts. Recommended to me by Glenn Solomon, my friend and an esteemed criminal defense attorney.

At first I’d taken Jay Givens also to be an attorney: his Gucci loafers, crisp blue shirt, and tailored chinos spoke of lawyers’ casual dress. But it turned out he was CEO of one of the city’s medium-size CPA firms. Wife Camilla—short blond ponytail that reminded me of a whisk broom, tank top, long flowing skirt, hand-tooled leather cowboy boots—worked at, as she said, “little things.” What little things? I’d asked. Well, she’d been an interviewer for a small radio station in Berkeley, until they’d gone broke. And she’d written a column for an ecology-oriented magazine there. Two columns, actually, before that firm had also failed. And then there were her Hawaiian shirt company and her silk-screened scarf company…

Camilla’s specialty appeared to be killing off endangered companies or those of her own devising. I had no doubt that she was talented, articulate, and motivated. But none of her ventures had worked out, and I could understand the reason: she was an emotional defective.

Not a very orthodox medical diagnosis, but I have a certifiable half brother who spends his life in and out of institutions. There’s a feel to the condition, almost a smell to it, and both emanated from her now. I glanced at her husband; it was his diagnosis too.

“Okay,” I said, “let’s go over the facts once more. Pretend we’re just starting out. You were walking in your neighborhood—”

“Russian Hill.”

“At around seven o’clock last Wednesday night—”

“Seven ten.”

“And you were passing a vacant lot on Saturn Street where the basement for a new apartment building has been excavated. Then you saw—”

“People down there.”

“Homeless people?”

“No. They had an expensive umbrella, like the marketplace ones you see on restaurant patios. And an outdoor fireplace, probably bought from Williams-Sonoma. There was a roaring fire in it, and I think they were about to sacrifice an infant.”

I glanced at Jay Givens. He winced and again placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders.

“Did you see this infant?” I asked.

“No, but I heard her cry.”

“How do you know it was a girl?”

“I just know, that’s all.”

“Why do you think they were going to sacrifice her?”

“Well, that’s what they do, isn’t it? Those kind of people?”

When I’d questioned the woman before about what “those kind of people” were like, the rambling answer she’d given me had made no sense. This one wouldn’t either. Fortunately I was taping our conversation; maybe I could interpret it better when I went over it.

I ran the tip of my tongue over my lips, made a nonsense symbol on my legal pad, and asked, “What kind of people?”

She was leaning forward, trying to read what I’d written on the pad; I shielded it from her sight. “Those people…?” I prompted.

“Devil worshippers.”

Jay Givens let go an audible sigh, but his wife was so into her story she didn’t hear him.

“They do these things to appease Satan, but they don’t want to do them in their homes because the fire and burning flesh would stink them up. They’re all affluent like Jay and me—that’s how they got to be.”

This was a fantasy she hadn’t voiced before. “They made pacts with the devil?”

Camilla Givens nodded solemnly.

“You mentioned that the people were affluent like you and your husband. Neither of you made a pact with the devil, did you?”

Indignant look. “Of course not! Jay’s very smart, and I’m very creative. We made our own success. Those people are sly but stupid and need help.”

Oh, lord! Secret meetings in an excavated basement—with marketplace umbrellas and Williams-Sonoma outdoor stoves. Barbecued babies. Maybe a goat or two? Hoods…?

I asked, “Were they wearing hoods?”

“Oh, yes, hoods. But the people weren’t the Klan. The Klan’s hoods are pointy, but those people’s were round, to fit their heads. But long, down to their elbows.”

At this point Jay Givens turned around and mimed banging his head against the wall. His little act annoyed me. Why had he brought his wife here with her ridiculous tale, rather than to a psychiatrist? Why had Glenn Solomon referred them to me?

Camilla Givens was watching me eagerly.

I said, “Let me do a little exploration, and tomorrow we’ll talk some more.”

Neither of them asked what the exploration would be, nor what it would cost. That was okay; the sum total of it would be a conversation with Glenn.

2:55 p.m.

“Glenn, why on earth did you send the Givens couple to me?”

We were seated in a booth at Temple Bar on Lime Alley near the Federal Building where he had been appealing a case. Besides being a lawyers’ and politicians’ hangout, the bar was a throwback to the gaslight days, with leather banquettes, red-flocked wallpaper, chandeliers hung with crystal teardrops and turned low. The floor was covered with ancient Oriental carpets, and the ceiling with decorative tin panels. There was a residue of long-ago cigar smoke that nothing short of tearing down the building would eradicate.

Glenn sipped his martini and said, “You thought the wife was insane, right?”

“Isn’t she?”

“Maybe. When they first came to my office to discuss this…problem they’ve been having, she seemed strange enough to be scary.”

I sipped my wine, said, “Glenn, today you were arguing an appeal for a client who’s been convicted of killing seven people.
He’s
not scary?”

“There’s a difference. He was in manacles and a San Quentin jumpsuit, with guards standing by. Besides,” he added, “he’s innocent.”

“Come on. You don’t really believe that. They’re
all
innocent—according to them.”

“Some are, some aren’t. But I give them as good a defense as I can because, my friend, they are all equal under the law—including the defendants in the pro bono cases I take on for zip dollars.” He made a gesture of cash flowing through his fingers. “Those clients are at greater risk because they’re poor, badly educated, ethnic, and can’t speak out for themselves. I speak for them.”

“And you also soak your rich clients.”

He laughed. “Hell, why not? They’re glad to pay because they’re usually so goddamn guilty!”

I laughed too. “Let’s get back to the Givenses. Anything you can tell me about them that Mick can’t get off the Internet?” Mick Savage, my nephew, had transformed the agency with his search skills, and now he and another operative, Derek Ford, were making yet more strides in the area of investigative work. Their search engine, SavageFor, had sold to the giant—and well-named—Omnivore, and a more state-of-the-art version, 4S, would go public in months.

Glenn looked thoughtful. “Going to consult the old memory bank for a couple of minutes.”

As he held his “consultation” I looked around the bar. An assistant district attorney with whom I’d had dealings was at one end, attempting to entrance a young woman with beautiful long dark hair. (He wouldn’t score.) At the other end, an aide to the current mayor had his head together with a well-known freelance publicist. (The city needed the publicist; the mayor was, as usual, in trouble.) A minor real-estate tycoon held an intense conversation with a developer. (It was a false show, probably put on for someone else present in the crowd; in reality, they hated each other.)

Glenn said, “My friend, are you still in there?”

“What? Oh, I’m just watching the future of the city evolve around me.”

He gave the other patrons a dark look. “This crowd gets its paws on real power, and they’ll turn the city to shit.”

“Why do you come here, then?”

“Know thine enemy.”

It was getting late, and I had other things to finish up, so I said, “About the Givenses?”

“Right.” He ran a hand over his thick white hair. “I don’t know either of the Givenses very well, but Jay’s father Roy was a close friend for years. He died on the golf course at Pebble Beach last August. That’s why I have good reason to stay away from those death traps.” Portly Glenn was openly averse to exercise in any form. “Anyway, I suppose they felt more comfortable with a known quantity like me when Camilla started having her…little problems.”

“Is there something about these ‘little problems’ that would indicate Camilla needs a criminal lawyer? Or a detective, rather than a good psychiatrist?”

“Because when they brought me Camilla’s extremely unbelievable tale, I sensed something.”

“What?”

“Hard to put into words. In my profession, as in yours, we rely on intuition and our imperfect knowledge of the human psyche. Something was, in cop jargon, hinky.”

“With the husband or the wife?”

“Both.”

“How?”

“He acted condescending—indulge the little screwball, you know. She was frightened—of him or of these episodes, I can’t say.”

“Episodes? Plural?”

“They didn’t tell you about the others?”

“No.”

Glenn looked at his watch. “I have to meet a client on the Peninsula in an hour, so that gives us time to go back to my office and access my file on the Givenses. You free?”

“For now.”

3:21 p.m.

While Glenn searched for the Givens file, with the great mumbling and grumbling of a person who delegates all but the most simple computer tasks to his minions, I enjoyed the panoramic view from his office in Four Embarcadero Center.

I grew up in San Diego, but while I was a student at UC–Berkeley the Bay Area claimed me as one of its own. The great expanses of waterways and bridges crossing them; the towering hills that were either pine-forested, peopled, or severely barren; the lights of the houses twinkling through the trees at night; the variety of architectural styles; the blending of past and future that permeates today’s lifestyle—all of them touched my heart as no other place ever had. I’d never looked back.

Now traffic was slowing up on the northbound lanes of the Golden Gate Bridge—early for a Monday. An excursion boat chugged along steadily; I could imagine the voice of the guide bellowing through a microphone at the captive audience of tourists. Media choppers buzzed low, monitoring the commute; a jet out of SFO left contrails in the blue sky. A beautiful, picture-perfect day.

Of course, it was March, and that meant picture-perfect wouldn’t stay around for long. Although our weather has strayed from its usual patterns with the encroachment of global warming, January through March is typically our rainy season. If you’re here then, you’d better have an umbrella and hat close at hand.

“Ah shit!” Glenn threw up his hands in resignation. “I can’t find it. I’ve had so many temps in, and I swear each has a different techno-language.”

“Where’s Ms. Hamlin?” I asked. She’d been Glenn’s secretary for several years.

“Where d’you think? She’s gone East—to law school at Michigan.”

Secretaries were always leaving Glenn for law school; his excellent tutelage gave them too much enthusiasm to resist the call of higher education. It was to his credit that he supplied them with glowing recommendations.

“What about a paper file?” I asked.

“The temps have different alphabets as well.”

“You’re going to be late for your meeting. If you trust me, I’ll stay and try to access the file.”

“If I trust you? Why wouldn’t I?”

“This computer contains a treasure trove of confidential information.”

“Which I know you have no intention of accessing.” His eyes twinkled as he shrugged into his suit coat. “Besides,” he added, “I didn’t give you my password, did I? Just shut her down when you leave. I’ll alert building security that you’re working up here.”

6:58 p.m.

My eyes felt as if there were sand under their lids, and my head throbbed dully when I descended to the garage at Four Embarcadero, my arms full of printed pages. For a couple of hours I’d tried to digest what I found on Glenn’s computer, but I was reading too fast and taking too few notes, so in the end I’d printed out the whole file. Glenn’s printer didn’t like me—or maybe I was just incompetent—and it kept jamming pages. My hands were covered with ink stains from trying to free them, and what little patience I had was razor-thin. I tossed the pages on the passenger seat of my car, where they promptly slipped onto the floor. I sighed and headed back to my offices in the RI building on New Montgomery.

I had mixed feelings about the building and the new offices. The offices were elegant—very, very elegant. Deeply piled carpets; attractive and functional contemporary furnishings; posters from special events at the city’s museums brightening the pale-gray walls. My own space was a dream: it had an expansive view from the Golden Gate to the East Bay hills, a huge cherrywood desk and matching bookcases and file cabinets; a full-length sofa so I wouldn’t have to lie on the floor during my “quiet times” (anything from a full-blown snit to deep slumber). My age-old armchair, originally from a closet under the stairs at All Souls Legal Cooperative, but now restored in leather, and its newish matching hassock were positioned by the windows under a healthy potted schefflera plant named Mr. T., after Ted Smalley, my office manager. The Grand Poobah, as he prefers to call himself, had decorated the suite single-handedly.

BOOK: The Night Searchers (A Sharon McCone Mystery)
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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