Authors: Marcia Muller
Tags: #FIC022040, #Suspense
I paged through it, nodded. “Go on.”
“Okay, real estate is his thing. Office parks, shopping centers, condo complexes, and a big chunk of land smack in the middle of the Nevada desert that ain't never gonna be worth nothin’ nohow. The deal is, the guy's got so much money it'll never run out, but he's unlucky as hell.”
“I'll give you one example, you can read about the rest. He's got this office park in Milpitas. About a year ago one of his tenants, a Nigerian cab company, declared war on the Arab sanitary-supply service and the Cuban package-delivery firm. Seems they were tossing their trash in the Nigerians’ Dumpster. Insults were exchanged, trash was dumped at each other's doors, and it all ended up in a shoot-out in the parking lot. The Nigerians won, but then they got busted, and the guy was out three tenants.”
“International intrigue, no less.”
“You got it. Anyway, from here on out the news gets worse. Dude's done time in the bin—nice private hospital for the outrageously insane. What put him there was holding his ex-wife out a seventeenth-story window at the Beverly Wilshire and threatening to drop her unless she gave him custody of the kids. An LAPD negotiating team put a stop to
caper. And there're indications that lunacy goes at a fast trot throughout the entire family.”
“Poor Bea Allen!”
“Yeah. If you want my opinion, the client should either marry him and keep the knives locked up or run like hell. Whatever, she should definitely stay out of the parking lots at his office parks.”
At four-thirty I was sitting in the armchair by the arching window at the end of the pier, watching the bay vista grow increasingly gloomy as the rain pelted down. A sudden heavier spate thundered onto the roof, and I glanced up, looking for leaks. None so far.
A tap at the door. I looked around and saw Neal Osborn standing there. Neal was Ted Smalley's significant other: a tweedy, rumpled, bearded, bespectacled secondhand bookseller whose thinning ginger-colored hair frequently stood up in peaks because he finger-combed it while perusing the tomes in his Polk Street store. Neal had once confessed to me that he would rather crawl through somebody's dusty garage or attic in pursuit of a rare first edition than do almost anything else on earth; frequently Ted, also a book lover, joined him on those forays.
“Hey, there,” I said. “If you're looking for Ted, he left early for a dental appointment.”
Neal came all the way into the office. “I know. Actually, it's you I'm looking for.”
“Oh? Well, pull up a chair.”
He moved one over by mine and sat.
“So what's on your mind?” I asked.
“I need to talk to you about Ted. Have you noticed that he's been behaving strangely the past few weeks?”
“I have, and it's getting worse. Yesterday he worked himself into a state of complete indecision over which model of copier to buy. He insisted on my help, even though I can't change the toner in our old one, and went on and on about this feature versus that feature. We'd get it all decided, and then he'd say, ‘But maybe we should reconsider …’ It wasn't like him at all.”
“Well, he's been distracted and very short with everybody. On Monday, Rae told him he was being bitchy, and he said, ‘Why don't you just come right out and call me a bitchy fag?’ None of us knows where that was coming from; nobody's sexuality has ever been an issue around here.”
“D’ you have any idea what's causing this behavior?”
I shook my head. “One day, maybe three or four weeks ago, he came in here with some letters for my signature, and I sensed he wanted to talk to me about something but didn't quite know how to get started. I'm afraid I wasn't encouraging, either; I was in the middle of a complicated report that the client was picking up within the hour, so I put him off, told myself I'd talk with him later. But then I forgot, and by the time I thought to approach him, he put
“Those're the same kinds of things I've noticed. I've asked him what's wrong several times, and he denies there's a problem. But there is: Most of the time it's as if he's thinking of something other than what we're talking about. And he's taken to calling me at the store for no particular reason—four or five times a day, yet. A lot of the time he's not where he says he's going to be, or when.”
I reviewed the possibilities. “Do you think he's cheating on you? Or that he thinks you're cheating on him?”
“No. In either case, he'd bring something like that right out in the open. It's the nature of our relationship.”
“What about drugs? When a person's as irritable as Ted, you've got to consider the possibility.”
“I've considered it, as well as other physical problems.”
We both fell silent, our eyes meeting. The unspeakable lay between us: AIDS.
“No,” Neal said after a moment, “that's one thing we can rule out. He'd tell me immediately, so I could get tested.”
Yes, he would. Nothing angered Ted more than infected people who put others at risk. “Well, maybe it's just … some weird phase he's going through.”
“I wish I could believe that, but I can't.” He hesitated. “What I was wondering, Shar … Could you look into it, on an informal basis?”
It seemed an extreme solution to what was, after all, a purely personal problem.
“Not really, but maybe you could observe him, try to talk with him. You know what to look for, how to ask questions.”
“I don't know, Neal. Ted's watched me operate for a lot of years; he might guess what I was doing, and that would put a strain on our friendship.”
Neal ran long fingers through his unruly hair. “I understand what you're saying, but … Okay, there's more. Ted's not just short-tempered and strange. He's afraid.”
“Yeah, I can feel it. Sometimes I wake up at night and … You know how you can lie in the dark and know the other person's awake, even if he breathes regularly?”
“Well, almost every night I wake up and realize Ted's awake too. But if I say something, he pretends not to be. He's thinking, thinking hard, and there's a feeling of fear in the room.”
I was silent, remembering times when I'd felt that kind of fear in a dark room.
“Has anything unusual happened to Ted recently that might account for this?” I asked.
“Not that he's told me. Up to now, ours has been a somewhat staid and boring household—not that that's necessarily a bad thing. You get into your forties and you start to appreciate a life where the biggest event is a signal-jumper almost running you down in the crosswalk.”
“Ted was almost run down?”
“No, me. Crossing to the parking garage from the store last week. No big deal; it's a wonder that on any given day Polk Street isn't littered with maimed pedestrians. So how about it, Shar—will you see what you can find out about all this?”
I considered. The behavior Neal described and I'd observed certainly was strange for a man who had always been among the most consistent and levelheaded people I knew. And Ted was my friend as well as my employee; whatever he was going through, I wanted to be there for him. There, if need be, in spite of him.
“Okay,” I said, “what I can do is observe him more closely for a day or two. If that doesn't give me some idea of what's going on with him, I may have to establish a surveillance.”
“One other thing I wish you'd do …” Neal hesitated.
“I … I've actually snooped through his things, mainly looking for evidence of drug use, but I realized I don't know what to look for. Would you?”
“Go through your apartment?”
Now I hesitated. Prying into Ted's personal effects struck me as going too far. But then I caught the worried look on Neal's face, and a memory from my college days that I'd largely suppressed came to mind.
One of the residents of the rambling old house on Berkeley's Durant Avenue that I'd shared with an ever-changing group of fellow students had been a woman called Merrily Martin. When she first moved in, the carefree, somewhat ditzy blonde was living proof of a name being destiny, but within six months she became moody, irritable, depressed, and withdrawn. Hank Zahn, who also lived there at the time, suspected drug use and argued that we ought to search her room; I contested the notion hotly, citing Merrily's right to privacy, and Hank gave in. Several weeks later we found Merrily dead in bed of a heroin overdose; a suicide note on the nightstand asked, “Why didn't any of you help me?”
I'm still a champion of the individual's right to privacy, but I've never again put it ahead of a friend's welfare.
“Okay,” I said to Neal, “it's one possible way to find the answer quickly.”
“Thanks.” He took out a case and removed one of the keys. “Here. I've got a spare in the car.”
I took it and tucked it in my pocket. “Are the two of you coming to Rae and Ricky's Valentine's Day celebration?”
“Then if I don't find anything at the apartment, I can check him out tomorrow night and decide where to go from there.”
Neal punched me lightly on the upper arm. “Thank you, buddy. I feel better already.”
“Try not to worry. It's going to be okay.”
He took my hand and held it for a while as we watched the day turn into night.
returned to the pier at close to eleven for a meeting with a prospective client.
At around five-thirty Rae—who was working overtime on the report on her investigation of pilferage from an expensive Fillmore Street boutique—had buzzed me on the intercom. “There's a guy on line one who says he's now sure his partner is embezzling and wants to take you up on your offer to get evidence that'll stand up in court.”
“What's his name?”
The name wasn't familiar, but I supposed I'd spoken with him at some point. “Set up an appointment for tomorrow, would you?”
“He wants to see you tonight. Apparently he's co-owner of an art gallery and they're having a showing, so he's tied up most of the evening, but he said he could come over here around eleven.”
An unusual time to sit down with a client, but not unheard of. “Okay,” I said, “tell him I'll be here then.”
At a few minutes after eleven Clive Benjamin, a tall man in formal dress, with a shoulder-length mane of blond hair and angular features, strode through my office door, both hands extended. When he saw me he stopped abruptly and pulled them back, confusion replacing his warm smile.
He said, “I asked to meet with Ms. McCone personally.”
“I'm Sharon McCone.”
“No, you're not.”
“What's going on here?”
“Mr. Benjamin, please sit down. Perhaps there's been some mistake; we'll sort it out.”
He remained standing. “There's been a mistake, all right. If Sharon doesn't want to see me again or work for me, why didn't she just have her secretary tell me so?”
“You know … Ms. McCone?”
“I met her at an opening at my gallery last Friday. She gave me one of her cards. Here.” He fished a card from the inside pocket of his suit coat and held it out.
The card was a duplicate of mine but on cheaper stock. I'd never seen this man before in my life, certainly hadn't been to his gallery.
Oh, God …
I said, “Mr. Benjamin, let's sit down.”
This time he complied. I went around the desk and sat facing him. This situation had a familiar ring—one I didn't like at all. I'd humor him till I got the facts.
“As you were saying, you met Ms. McCone at an opening at your gallery last Friday.”
“So you admit you're standing in for her. What does she do, screen all prospective clients, even the ones she knows?”
“There's obviously been a failure of communication somewhere along the line. As you were saying …”
“She came to our opening. An exhibition of papier-mâché animals by Jesse Herrera. She was interested in purchasing one—a
with a Dalmatian's face and praying hands. Herrera combines animal species with the human in unusual ways. Anyway, that's how we met, when she admired the piece.”
A piece I wouldn't give houseroom to. “And?”
“Well, she was undecided about the piece, so I asked her to dinner in the hope of convincing her it was a good investment. In the course of the evening I mentioned my problem with my partner, and she offered to look into it. Better to know now than be sorry later, she said. I understood what she meant, but Travis has been my best friend since prep school, and I didn't like the idea of having him investigated. So I told her I'd think about it, and after she left the next morning, I decided to take a closer look at the books—”
“After she left
the next morning?”
He realized his slip, and his lips pulled tight with annoyance. “Ms…. I don't know who you are or what your position here is, but your employer's personal life is none of your business.”
I got up and went to where my purse hung on the coatrack, took out my identification folder, and spread it open on the desk in front of Clive Benjamin.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered after a moment, “who the hell did I sleep with?”
The woman, Benjamin told me, was around ten years younger than I but fairly similar in appearance. Same body type, same hairstyle and color, but her facial features didn't reflect Native American ancestry, as mine do.
What were hers like? I asked.
Sort of cute.
Could he compare her to anyone, an actress or other public figure, perhaps?
Maybe Susan Dey, who had played on
I'd heard the name, but never watched the show. Having worked closely with attorneys throughout my career, I can't get into courtroom dramas that so seldom approximate real life.
“Okay,” I said, “how was she dressed?”
“She wore a teal-blue silk outfit—clingy. Expensive; I noticed its label was from one of the designer collections at Saks.”
Teal-blue silk, the same as the woman who had impersonated me at the film council fund-raiser the next night. A color I love but can't wear successfully; it turns my skin tone to mud.