“My God, what’s going on down there?” I asked Hy.
He peered through the Cessna’s side window as I banked over Touchstone, our property on the cliffs above the sea in Mendocino County. “Hate to say it, but it looks like a party.”
“Oh, hell, I never should’ve called the office from Reno.”
It did indeed look like a party: tables dotted the terrace, their brightly colored cloths fluttering in the sea breeze; smoke billowed from the barbecue; a crowd of people stood on the mole-humped excuse for a lawn, staring up and waving at the plane.
“There’s Mick,” Hy said. “And Charlotte. And Ted.”
“Probably the instigators.” I banked again and began my approach to our dirt landing strip along the bluff’s top. “How on earth did they organize this in just a few days?”
“Well, your people’re nothing if not efficient.”
“Yours, too.” I pointed down at Gage Renshaw, one of Hy’s partners in the security firm of Renshaw and Kessell International. “He made it up from La Jolla in time.”
“Nice of him. And I see Hank, Anne-Marie, and Habiba. And Rae. But all these people kind of put a damper on the rest of the honeymoon.”
“Oh, Ripinsky, we’ve been honeymooning for years.”
“That’s a fact.”
I concentrated on making a smooth landing, then taxied toward the plane’s tiedown, where my nephew Mick Savage, his live-in love, Charlotte Keim, and several other friends had converged. When I stepped down, I was smothered in one hug after another, while Mick helped Hy attach the chains to the Cessna. The hugging and exclaiming continued as we started toward the house, and then I heard someone singing.
“Tough lady thought she couldn’t be caught by the rhythm of the blues
Till she fell right hard for a flyin’ man who had nothin left to lose . . .”
The voice belonged to my former brother-in-law, country music star Ricky Savage. The song, apparently, was one he’d written especially for Hy and me.
“So did you get married in a wedding chapel?” Hank Zahn, my former boss and closest male friend, asked.
“Plastic flowers and a rented veil?” This from his wife and law partner, Anne-Marie Altman.
“Were there Elvis impersonators?” The dark eyes of their daughter, Habiba Hamid, sparkled wickedly.
“You guys are thinking of Las Vegas,” I told them. “We spent the night in Reno, then drove to Carson City, the state capital, applied for a license, and were married that afternoon by a judge. It was nice. Private. Tasteful, even.”
Hank and Anne-Marie nodded approval, but Habiba looked disappointed. She was a teenager who probably would have delighted in the image of Hy and me rocking-and-rolling down the aisle.
“What, no ring?” Ted Smalley, my office manager, demanded.
“Neither of us likes to wear rings. Besides, we feel married enough as is.”
“Nobody can feel too married,” his partner, Neal Osborne, fingered the gold band that matched Ted’s. They’d exchanged them at a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall, during the brief period when the mayor had declared the clerk’s office open for the issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples.
“I guess not,” I said. “And you two are a good example for all of us.”
“Tell that to the governator.”
“He’ll be told, come next election. You’re married in the eyes of your friends, and someday you’ll be married in the eyes of the state.”
“Sure is nice to be working for an honest woman.” Charlotte Keim, my financial operative, punctuated the comment with a bawdy laugh.
My nephew Mick said, “I think that’s a hint. She wants to fly off to Reno like you did.”
“Flatter yourself, already!” Charlotte elbowed him in the ribs.
“One of these days I just might weaken and ask you.”
“One of these days I just might weaken and ask you.”
I smiled and left the happy couple to their half-serious standoff.
“So, McCone, you gonna tame him down?” Gage Renshaw, one of Hy’s partners, smiled slyly at me, dark hair blowing in the wind off the sea.
“No more than he’s going to tame me down.”
“Yeah, I guess that would take some doing.”
Gage never discussed personal things with me. I glanced at the champagne in his glass, wondering how many he’d had.
“In my experience,” he added, “a man gets married, he gets cautious, loses his edge. In our business, that makes for mistakes. And mistakes can be fatal.”
No, Gage wasn’t drunk; he was trying to send a message.
“I hear you,” I said, “but you’re talking to the wrong person.”
“Don’t think so. We’ve got a situation coming up that’s gonna require all our resources. See that your man’s ready for it.”
Nice wedding gift, Gage.
Hours later, clouds had gathered on the horizon, orange and pink and purple in the afterglow of the sunset. The others had retreated from the clifftop platform to the house, presumably to raid the dessert table, but Rae Kelleher and I remained behind to take in what, to me, were the most spectacular moments of the sunsets here on the Mendocino Coast. Rae—my onetime assistant, close friend, and near-relative, having married Ricky after his divorce from my younger sister Charlene.
I said, “Nice song Ricky wrote. On short notice, too.”
She laughed. “He wrote it a year ago. He’s been waiting for the two of you to get married before he performed it.”
“Oh, and he really expected that would happen?”
“We all did—except for you.”
I sighed. Sometimes our friends and relatives know us better than we know ourselves.
“It’ll be on his next CD,” she added.
“Our little piece of immortality.”
“Well, we all want that, don’t we?”
Did we? It seemed to me that right now I had everything I’d ever wanted. Even if I hadn’t realized how much I’d wanted it until Hy turned the plane toward Reno a few days ago.
We sat silent for a moment. The surf boomed on the rocks in the cove below, eating at the steep cliffs. What was it the geologist who had inspected our land before we sited the house had said? Something about it possibly sliding into the sea if we intended to live there for more than a thousand years.
Right now I felt as if I could live forever.
Rae said, “What was it that tipped the scales in favor of marriage?”
“It just seemed right. Hy’s been wanting this for a long time, you know. But he had a good first marriage, even if Julie was very sick for years before she died. My history with men, on the other hand—”
“Right. No need to rehash that.” Rae looked down at her diamond-studded wedding ring. “Or to rehash my checkered past. What a bunch of losers—including me, for getting involved with them. What did your mother say when you told her the news?”
“Which one?” I had two: the adoptive mother who’d raised me and the birth mother with whom I’d finally connected a couple of years ago.
“Well, Ma carried on as if I’d announced I’d won the Nobel Peace Prize; then she had me put Hy on the phone. To him she said, ‘Congratulations on joining our family.’ And then she laughed and added, ‘Well, considering the family, maybe congratulations aren’t in order.’”
“Oh my God. And Saskia?”
“More restrained. But she was pleased. She met Hy last summer when she was in town for a bar association meeting, and they really hit it off.”
“You call Elwood?” Elwood Farmer, my birth father, an artist who lived on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.
“Yes. He was . . . just Elwood.”
“Meaning he didn’t say much and now he’s thinking over the deeper meaning of it all.”
“Must be complicated, having all those relatives. Sometimes I’m glad I’ve got no family left.”
“What d’you mean? You’re a stepmother six times over.”
“That’s different.” She paused. “Shar, I need to talk to you about a potential case for the agency.”
I felt a stirring of unease. Ricky had been a notorious womanizer throughout his marriage to my sister. If that had started again, and Rae wanted me to investigate, I couldn’t possibly take it on. Conflict of interest on too many levels.
“I’m asking for a friend of mine,” she added. “It’s something that really means a lot to her, and it could be very lucrative for you.”
I relaxed. “Tell me about it.”
“Her name’s Jennifer Aldin. She’s a textile designer, works with a lot of the high-society decorators in the city. I got to know her through Ricky; her husband, Mark, is his financial manager.”
“I thought Ricky managed his own money.”
“No, Charlene always did that.”
“Right.” My younger sister hadn’t finished high school because she was pregnant with Mick, but years later she’d gotten her GED and gone to college; now she possessed a PhD in finance and helped her new husband, international businessman Vic Christiansen, run his various enterprises.
“Anyway,” Rae went on, “after Ricky and Charlene split and he established the new record label, he realized he was in over his head. I’ve got no talent whatsoever with money—you remember how my charge cards were always maxed out—so he went to Mark, who has a lot of clients in the entertainment industry. Mark keeps things on track, and makes us a small fortune from investments.”
As if they needed more. Ricky made millions yearly, and Rae’s career as a novelist was about to take off.
“So,” I said, “Mark’s wife is a friend of yours.”
“Yes. At first it was one of those situations where the husbands get together over dinner for business reasons and the wives’re supposed to make small talk. But neither Jen nor I is much good at polite chitchat; when we loosened up and started talking about things that really mattered, we discovered we had a lot in common. One of those things being a horror of artificial social situations. Now Mark and Ricky go sailing to talk business, and Jen and I do whatever pleases us.”
I realized that I didn’t know all that much about Rae’s everyday life since she’d married and become a published author. We had lunch occasionally, talked on the phone every couple of weeks, and spent Christmas Eve together because that was when all six of Ricky and Charlene’s kids gathered at the Seacliff-district house he and Rae shared. But I didn’t really know how she spent her time, or who her other friends were.
“What kinds of things do you and Jennifer do?” I asked.
“We take hikes.” At my incredulous look, she grinned. “Yeah, I’ve hiked some of the toughest trails on Mount Tam. No more collapsing to rest every quarter mile.”
“Better watch out—soon you’ll be running the Bay to Breakers.”
“I haven’t reformed that much. Anyway, we also go antiquing, and to galleries, visit museums, or run up to the wine country and do some tasting.”
“Sounds nice.” And it made me feel wistful. I’d been so busy managing the agency—which was growing month by month—that I seldom saw most of my women friends. My male friends, too; I couldn’t remember when I’d last spent time with Hank.
Hell, it was a wonder I’d found the time to get married!
“Okay,” I added, “now tell me what Jennifer wants investigated.”
Rae nibbled on a fingernail, looking out to sea. “It’s a long shot, I think. Twenty-two years ago, when Jennifer was ten, her mother, Laurel Greenwood, disappeared down in San Luis Obispo County. One of those cases where it looks like the person’s either disappeared voluntarily or committed suicide, but everybody says, ‘She never would have done that; it must be foul play.’ And in this case they may be right. There was no trouble in the Greenwood marriage. Laurel was content with her life, a good mother, as well as a successful businesswoman, and very involved in her community.”
“And no body was ever found.”
“No trace of her. Afterward, Jen’s father became very closed off, didn’t permit her or her sister to so much as mention their mother’s name. Seven months ago, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jen tried to talk with him about her mother, but he flat-out refused. He died two months later, and then Jen started obsessing about the disappearance. Finally she looked up the newspaper accounts of it. There was a big media flap for the first few days, then nothing. Almost as if someone had put a lid on the case.”
“This was handled by the SLO County Sheriff’s Department?”
“She talk to the investigating officers?”
“The guy in charge has died. The deputy she spoke with wasn’t very interested in helping her. Can’t blame him; it’s a cold case, and he’s got better things to do with his time.”
“So she came to you, since you used to be an investigator.”
“Actually, no. Mark got worried about her obsessing. She was losing weight, not sleeping or eating properly, not working well. So he decided he’d bankroll a full-scale investigation into her mother’s disappearance, and asked Ricky if he thought your agency would be right for the job. Of course, he said it would.”
“A full-scale investigation into a cold case?”
“The works. Mark’s willing to spend whatever it takes to give Jen peace of mind.”
“Sounds like he loves her a lot.”
“Yeah, he does.”
I asked, “So why didn’t Jennifer Aldin approach me directly? Why have you pave the way?”
“She only decided to go ahead with the investigation yesterday. Last night, the four of us were having dinner, and when I mentioned that Ricky and I were coming up here for the party, she asked me to speak with you. The thing is, she wants you to handle the case personally.”
“Because you’re the best there is.”
“According to . . . ?”
“Ricky and me. The man on the street. Oh, hell, Shar, will you take it on? Jen needs closure in order to get her life back on track.”
I considered. Late last month I’d wrapped up a case that had been very personal and had threatened my career, as well as the existence of the agency. After having my attention taken away from normal business affairs for two weeks, I’d been trying to make up for lost time, but managing our heavy caseload and the attendant paperwork threatened even now to overwhelm me. Still, Ted could pick up some of the slack in the paperwork department, and I had a couple of new operatives who were coming along fast. . . .
I was mentally shifting priorities and assignments as I said to Rae, “Okay. I’ll call Jennifer tomorrow, and maybe we can set something up for later in the week.”
“If I know her, she’ll want to see you soonest.”
“If so, I can fit her in on Tuesday afternoon. We’re flying down tomorrow night.”
“What, so soon? You and Hy aren’t taking any more time off?”
“Can’t. He’s due in La Jolla at RKI headquarters on Wednesday. Business is booming—their clients see terrorists behind every tree—and they’re hiring so many people that they need to restructure their training operations.”
And they’ve got a situation coming up. One that will require all their resources, according to Gage. I can’t even ask Hy about it, because he’d be furious at Gage for mentioning it to me. For attempting to dictate the terms of our relationship. If RKI is in trouble, the last thing they need is dissension among the partners.
Rae said, “So marriage isn’t going to change anything for you guys.”
“We don’t expect it to.”
She grinned. “Wait and see.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just wait and see.”
Copyright © 2006 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust