Sunday, January 25, 2009

Point Murder - Ann Whipple

Point Murder

A mild, cool, pleasant day after rain, with high fleecy clouds and smooth sheets of grey retreating to the east; just before eight o’clock, the sun was well over the green-filmed ridge, its outline sturdy enough behind the thinning drifts of cloud . A small silver car driven by a woman in her fifties passed from the cave of a garage into the fair light. Alice Perrin had not slept well, and getting ready had been full of irritations and false starts; she was more than usually on edge, though “on edge” was a frequent enough mode with her.

How many hundreds of times, she addressed the sliding automatic gate; how many thousands? The sky, how many times? Never before just this sky; but still the same sky, time after time after time. Ah, it was lovely. Oh, it was unbearable. The grass, the pink-flowering plums, the prunus and the yellow and orange and white Iceland poppies, the very daisies and poppies of the waste places. The doves, the geese, the gulls. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Dear God, the world was new and lovely and old and awful–English daisies! Iceland poppies! Canada geese! She hoped she would get through the day.

The rain had deepened some of the chuckholes, and she skirted them with her customary thought that to the uninitiated she must resemble a drunken driver. But here, where was anyone uninitiated? Theirs was a small community, set apart, seldom blundered upon by strangers.

On her left, by some trick of clouded light, Angel Island reared a sooty blue against the pale water of the Bay; then beyond, the headlands and Tamalpais reposed, green in the sun, against blue sky and light clouds. Nothing would happen on this trip, nothing ever did; she would hear her Mozart or Scarlatti–ugh, really, sometimes his stuff could be more nerve-wracking than some of Vivaldi’s–and admire all the burgeoning and blooming and flight and light, deplore the fading–for Spring leaves early in California, and green changes to gold and brown in a twinkling. February, still, and she was glad of that. The park, around the turn, with the damp steepness of the headland on her right. As always, she would arrive at the station, mount to the platform, and sit through her brief train-ride; think her thoughts.

She shuddered. She had forgotten, allowed herself to forget, what she had seen the day before. Late Sunday she had climbed that hill and hiked around the high ledge, vaguely hoping there would still be some boletes not tunneled by worms. She had called the police when she got home, being a good citizen. Though she had not been sure, in the front of her mind, she had been sure enough in her belly: a body, wrapped in a quilt. It had to be. The police had proved, as she had foreseen, kindly and phlegmatic. That had been that, except for her shakiness long after the call was over.

Now, just beyond the dark green jutting of scrub oak and toyon, were parked a police van and three squad cars. The gate to the fire road, she saw, was open. She wanted to stop, wanted to know, wanted to see–but another urgency pressed her foot more firmly onto the gas: to be elsewhere fast. She hit a number of the potholes and was not quite calm, despite the lovely light and the lovely vistas and the music (it was Brahms, in fact), even when she had passed the last of the park and got into the tunnel that led to town.

At the office–she ran, single-handedly, a small publishing company that produced limited-edition books on art, botany, ornithology, history, and the like, and was funded by a well-to-do old queen (his term) who lived in Florence–there was a polite but firm message on the machine to call Inspector Mullen of the local police.

This she did, and he asked when he might see her. She was prompt; any time that day would be fine. He promised to be with her in half an hour (her domain was two towns away from her home). Until then she could not think or work. The cup of tea she made for herself tasted metallic, so she threw it away.

“Miss Perrin? How do you do. I’m Inspector Aaron Mullen.”

“Mrs., actually, Inspector. I’m a widow. How do you do? Please come in.”

He was tall, attractive, fifty-something, with graying dark hair and serious dark eyes under a heavy brow. He was in plain clothes, and Alice remarked that they were not the usual glaring and unmistakable plain clothes of the usual policeman–a much nicer-than-normal tweed jacket, a tattersall shirt, well-creased gray slacks and excellent brown shoes, just a little in want of polish. No tie. She thought that they ought to understand one another well enough; she was most likely about his age, and she was herself graying and tweedy, though she was conscious that her excellent Italian pumps were nicely polished. Her sense was that he, like herself, understood the surfaces of things but knew how to disregard them as well.

Inspector Mullen had looked at her and then about him. The rooms were not opulent, but they were pleasing–dear old Morgan Evers had stipulated that she order everything of the best, and his own cultivated taste, when he had visited once or twice, had pronounced the results more than satisfactory. Copies of the firm’s books, all limited editions beautifully designed, filled the protected shelves of the far wall, but she received visitors in a lighter area, Eastern in feeling, with some fine blue-and-white porcelain on shelves and tables, Mughal and Caucasian carpets on the polished pale floor, filmy plain curtains over the long windows, and comfortable chairs in pale leather. Beyond was her workroom, with simple, utilitarian desk, machines, files, tables, chairs, and cupboards.

He explained that he wanted more information about the reason for her call of the day before; could they sit down? Of course, and would he care for anything? He declined. She indicated one of the big chairs, and sat opposite. She was at her ease; policemen did not intimidate her, and she had a fair experience of the world in general. Her work had introduced her to men and women of all kinds in many corners–worldly printers, dreamy designers, worldly authors, impractical authors, busy distributors, demanding publicists, conceited reporters, competent reporters. She had learned to keep the edgy Alice down when occasion demanded suavity.

“I should tell you that I saw a van this morning as I came to work, so I suppose your people checked out what I reported.”

“Yes. More of that later. Please tell me now the whole story of your experience.”

He had a pad of forms and had already filled in a few of the blanks with a nondescript ballpoint.

“It was about three-thirty, and I wanted air and exercise. I hiked up the hill from the path that is nearest my building, to the top, then took one of the side-tracks that lead to the summit. I admired the view a bit, then went on down by the path that skirts the edge, the northwesterly side. It’s pretty woodsy there, and shady. But I was peering into the woods because I hoped there might still be a few wild mushrooms–there sometimes are, even this late.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Not if you are very timid about it, as I am. I don’t pick anything I don’t know.”

“I think the county gets some poisoning cases, most every year.”

“I’m sure, and I hope I won’t ever be one–or any friend of mine. Nasty way to go.”

He made a few more entries on his form. “You said earlier that you were a widow. I have your address. You live there alone?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How long?”

“Alone there since my husband died, three years ago; eight years before that, with him.”

“Nice place.”

He spoke as if he knew the area in a workaday way.

“Nice enough. Convenient. A place you don’t have to think about, and everyone in the complex seems decent.”

He checked some boxes on his form. “And your work here? I see it’s called–what? Folium?”

“Yes, Folium Editions. It’s essentially the hobby business of an elderly man who lives abroad. We publish fine editions of important books that are no longer widely available in the original–illustrated natural history chiefly. We add notes and introductions and so on to update them. We almost break even–some years a little better than that.”

“Pretty costly books?”

“Oh, yes,” she answered cheerfully. “They cost the earth to produce; you’d be surprised. But there’s a market.”

“I suppose. So it is for most things, I guess. Oddly enough. You’ve been here how long?”

“Fifteen years.”

“Like it?”

“It’s ideal for me. I’m virtually independent. Mr. Evers is intelligent and generous. We visit back and forth quite often, and staying at a beautiful villa outside Florence, with everything done for one, is not my idea of hardship. When my husband was alive, he came along–Arthur loved Italy and could roam about on his own while Mr. Evers and I attended to our tiny bits of business.”

“But you don’t produce the books here?”

“No. There are surprisingly many excellent printing firms in the Bay Area. Sometimes we need color work done abroad, though–Italy or the Orient these days. We try to stick with local firms for the sake of quality-control.”

The Inspector gave the small smile that indicates a return to former subjects. “So you went out to look for mushrooms. Then?”

“That’s all I did, really. But as I was returning to the trail that goes back down the hill, I looked up into a hollow on my right–I suppose it would be southeast of the actual trail. And I saw this–bundle. It bothered me, because of the size. I thought of investigating.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because it was very steep, and I hadn’t brought a stick. It was pretty overgrown, too. And I was afraid.”

“Were you.”

He said this not in great surprise, but still as if he had not expected her to be.

“Yes, I was. It was getting dark, and the place is lonely, and I just didn’t want to see anything awful. It was far too still.... I thought of going up and around and then down the slope to look at it, but that was steep, too, and the area between the trail at that point and where the thing was is very thickly wooded, and full of poison oak. In fact, I wonder how it got there at all. Very tricky for anyone....”

“Please believe that I think you did the right thing in the circumstances.”

She thanked him gravely, but it seemed to her that she had been cowardly, and she kept silence for a moment, considering her action. No, the place and the time had been too much for her, and there was no sense in regret.

“Well,” she said.

“Please describe for me exactly what you saw.”

“It was just a bundle, a quilt wrapping something. It was pinkish, with tan and white flowers, and I could tell by the piping that it had been wrapped around whatever it was at an angle–it was obviously a large quilt, and whatever was inside must have been not much more than five feet tall–or long–and small in proportion. Oh, God.”

“It’s OK. Tell me, was it wet?”

“Wet? No, it looked perfectly dry.”

“You could tell that even in the dim light?”

She thought a moment. “Yes, I could. I stood some moments and looked at it, and there is something different in the way a wet quilt lies from a dry one, as well as in the colors. Anyone could tell, I’d say.”

He wrote some more, then looked up again, and their eyes held. He almost did not need to say what he said, but she knew that he must. “But it had rained yesterday morning, right?”

“Right,” she breathed. “Until about nine. Then started again about midnight last night.”

“Yes. I may as well tell you–the searchers found what you described, and pretty easily, too, despite the terrain and all–at about seven last night. We have some good lights, and there were even two men with us who knew the parks. It wasn’t easy to get to it, as you rightly said–but we went up by the fire road. The quilt was still quite dry–a little damp underneath from the wet grass, and a little dewy on top, but basically dry.”

They sat for a while in silence, and then Alice looked up. She would not ask, she decided.

“It was a body. A young woman. Naked except for a T-shirt, and strangled.”

Alice rose and walked to the window. The whole story seemed to her pathetic and dreary and sordid, and she knew nothing of it beyond these bare facts, and her own memory of a shapeless heap in a wintry park. The realities would elude her forever, she felt sure–whatever passion had led to the killing, the details of the life that was taken. She thought of Arthur, quickly dead from heart failure, but lost to her forever in a moment that stood now in her consciousness like an impassable rock in a roadway. She had felt so dead herself since then, sometimes almost at the end of her rope, but in fact she was alive and could act, could climb steep hills and make useful telephone calls. Such muddle and stupidity.

“What kind of person, may I ask?”

The Inspector seemed surprised that she should ask. “Pretty,” he said, “despite everything, surely pretty. Brunette, slim, smallish. As you guessed, not much over five feet. In good health. They’ll do the usual tests, of course, including DNA. Then we may know more. Nothing but the T-shirt, and that as anonymous as you can get. Did you see anyone on your walk?”

She shook her head. “No one on the hill, not a soul. It was eerie enough, but I suppose my taste for solitary winter walks is not shared by many people. Still, I wondered, I felt uneasy. Watched. That’s not uncommon, is it, when one’s alone?”

“But go back to before. Did you see anyone as you approached the trail up the hill?”

“On the level where the railroad tracks used to be, people walk their dogs. I think I saw several people out, mostly heading back to the condominiums or in that general direction, to the houses across the street. No one I knew or recognized.. I think they were mostly women, too. I remember someone with a black Lab and someone else with a tiny terrier–the dogs seemed more vivid than the owners, but I am pretty sure those two were women.”

“Then as you came down again?”

“No one. Except maybe.... There’s that very steep part just at the bottom of the trail, and it’s very muddy and slippery there, so I was coming down rather awkwardly, hanging onto the brush to steady myself. I stopped, and I did notice that someone was leaving the far end of that level field, the dog-walking place. It surprised me because I hadn’t seen anyone from up above, and I would have noticed–it’s all so open and clear there–so I wondered where he came from. He turned up into our apartment complex, I remember, and then I lost him, and forgot about him, too.”

“Did he have a dog?”

She shook her head. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But he was moving at a leisurely pace, not running away from anything. Maybe the dog was ahead of him–people do let them off the leash there sometimes.”

“ From what you saw, what can you tell me about him?”

“Well, I thought it might be Larry Dykstra–about his build, and Larry always wears that big-shouldered kind of mackinaw when he walks his dog–a setter. The hat was like Larry’s, too–do many people wear those broad-brimmed Australian hats?”


“Larry is the condominium association’s lawyer,” she added. “And there are other ways up and down that hill. Other steep trails down on the north side, very wooded ones.”

“What about cars?”

“Cars? Whizzing past almost all the time. I didn’t notice anything special. Oh, but there was! A green SUV was parked just at the far end of the field. People often park there when the yacht club lot is full, and I think there was a regatta on Sunday, but the green van was the only one still there when I came down from the hill.”

He asked her for details of the van, but she had to confess that they all looked alike to her–“dark green, newish, in good repair” was the best she could do. “Those tinted windows,” she added.

Inspector Mullen rose. “I think that’s about all we need for now, unless you can think of anything that might help us. I’m going to ask you to look at a picture of the girl–woman, she wasn’t more than twenty-five, but she looked girlish, being so small and slim. I’ll call you about that–could you drop by the station later today, when you’re free?”

She laughed. “Of course, Inspector. My time here is very much my own; Mr. Evers doesn’t check on me or make me punch any clocks, and all the authors and printers are scribbling away happily at their computers or marking up proofs in their studios, without any help from me just now. Tell me where and when.”

She spent the rest of the afternoon studying the re-designed title page for a Victorian “language of flowers” book. The printer had provided a choice of ten cuts, all exquisite, and the decision was difficult. She finally telephoned him, and they discussed each one in depth. They needed something in keeping, but did not want to compete with the color lithographs of the text, to be faithfully reproduced by modern printing methods. When they had finally decided on a posy that suggested the Victorian without excess, Alice felt too ill at ease about her forthcoming interview to do anything more. She made some tea, but, as before, it did not taste good to her, and she was presently locking up the office to go to meet Inspector Mullen.

Aaron Mullen let his work absorb him; he found the complex routines as satisfying as math, but livelier because of the human component. Still, the known stood against the unknown, and the task was to complete the equation. The small, sordid murder at the Point, of course, was not the only thing he had to deal with for the rest of his busy shift, but he gave a good deal of time to it, delegating certain tasks and going after other necessary items of information himself.

Late in the day, a few minutes before Alice Perrin’s appointment, he gave himself a break, and over coffee thought about her. He was puzzled by his own reaction to her–he felt there ought to have been some spark between them. Had her insistence upon her widowhood been the turn-off, or her bookishness? He was divorced himself, about as long as she had been widowed, and he was fond of books in a way–he read history and sociology as a mild recreation. He admired her fair, classic good looks and her air of candor. But no urge to reveal himself to her or to draw her out had come to him, and he wondered where the cool transparent barrier between them had its origin. In the circumstances? Possibly, but not necessarily; he seldom met people like her in the course of his work, so the novelty might have been an excitement–but no. He wondered if they would get to know one another better, if something might come of their association in this crime that superficially involved them. Hardly to tell, as Arnold Chen, his Chinese sidekick, often said. She would soon arrive.

He thought her far more nervous than in the morning. “Please don’t take this too hard,” he said, and she nodded.

The photograph was so gruesome that Alice shut her eyes at it; how infinitely worse the reality must have been, she thought. She was afraid she might be sick, but gave herself a few moments to repair her calm and courage. Then she looked at it, carefully and long.

“Inspector Mullen,” she said, and looked long, too, at his disciplined and intelligent features.

“You recognize her?”

“It’s difficult, after one meeting, and that some time ago. But yes. I think her name is Rosie Marler. A San Francisco girl. I’ll tell you how I met her.”

The Inspector had put aside the picture; they faced one another across his desk.

“Briefly, it was at a party for a book by a friend of a friend, and this young woman was the elderly author’s helper–the book was his rather exaggerated memoirs of his wild Parisian youth. I gathered that this Rosie made her living by doing odd jobs for people like André Michaud–paying bills and clearing up generally and being paid under the table. Also by modeling–she was quite charming.”

“This was when?”

“Perhaps four years ago.”

“You and your husband were at this party? Where was it?”

“Yes, we went together–in fact, my husband had known André slightly. I.... Yes. It wasn’t long after the party that my husband died. André also. Quite a little epidemic of dying.” Alice stopped to turn away and overcome a working sob; Inspector Mullen waited in silence.

“You asked where it was. The party was at an art gallery on Post Street. I can find the name for you. But I’m fairly sure that Rosie lived in the same neighborhood as the author, as André–somewhere on Russian Hill.”

“How did you come by the information about this person?”

“I chatted with her–she was sweet. I chatted with André, too, and he sang her praises. He was a dear old flirt.”

“I thought you said this author was ‘a friend of a friend’?”

“That’s basically true–but we actually knew him a little, Arthur and I. Not well, just to have a coffee or a drink someplace casually–Arthur and I used to like to go to North Beach, and he would turn up. We’d never been to his apartment, and he certainly never visited us. It was our friend Carol Ross who asked us to the book party–she’s a journalist. She knew Rosie, too, and she told me two things about her.”

Mullen prompted her silently, but she took a moment. “That she was a model and that she was a meth head.”

Inspector Mullen did not say anything; he was aware of Alice’s eyes intently on him.

“It all puts me a good deal on the spot, I see,” she said at last.

“You on the spot? You make big leaps and make them fast.”

She smiled, but she was not happy. “It’s from reading too much fiction and taking too dim a view of human nature, a sad legacy from hard-boozing Calvinist parents.”

Although she spoke with little inflection, his eyes widened; he knew what she was talking about, but he seldom encountered it in this coolly contained form.

“I follow,” he said. “All too well.”

There might not be a spark, he thought, but sympathy was pulsing between them.

Aaron Mullen telephoned Mrs. Perrin the next day to say that the identification had been confirmed. The body to which she had pointed the way was that of Rosie Marler, who had not been seen by her Union Street roommate since Friday. Miss Marler’s older sister, a successful dress designer, had come to the East Bay and identified her positively.

“Is that Laurel Marler?”

“You know her, too?”

“I’ve just recalled meeting her at that same party. We chatted, but she was too stylish for me, and I didn’t get to know her. Does she shed any light...?”

“She says she hadn’t got together with her sister for several months. She confirmed what you told us, that Rosie used meth pretty consistently and that she made her living by modeling and odd jobs. She said that the work Rosie did for your author acquaintance was about the most solid and tame job she’d ever had. She said Michaud overpaid her–apparently he doted on her.”

“I can imagine. And the roommate? Did she–or he?–have any inkling for you?”

“No. They’d been coming and going without much contact lately. Sylvia Olin, her name is–works in a bookstore. She thought there might have been a modeling job, but she didn’t know anything. She was accustomed to Rosie’s not coming home at night a lot of the time.”

“Well, I hope you can get somewhere with this sad business, Mr. Mullen.”

“Thanks. We did find something that makes me want to ask you to look out for yourself.”


“Don’t be alarmed. An uncashed check to her from a person who lives in your building, one Michael Fitzgerald.”

“Michael Fitzgerald? But he’s....”

“An artist, I believe.”

“Yes. There are a lot of artists. The area has a history of it, going way back....”

She heard the sudden strain in her voice and worried that she might seem hysterical to him.

“I should have come by,” he said. “Sorry to upset you.”

“No, it’s just that he lives two doors from me, very polite and private, and he’s quite a good artist–we had a little show a while back. It doesn’t add up.”

“Well, I hope it doesn’t. But we’re going to talk to him all the same.”

“I see that you have to. But as to my looking out for myself–what a notion. I mean, I always do.”

“Keep it up,” he said, and they said good-bye.

“Inspector Mullen?”

The slight, fair man with the humorous wide mouth and tall brow did not look to Aaron Mullen entirely at his ease, but he did not look like the picture of guilt, either. He stepped back and invited the policeman into the apartment, which smelled agreeably like an artist’s studio. They went into the small tile-floored solarium overlooking a broad lawn in which pink-flowering plums flounced in the wind.

“I’m here to ask about Rosie Marler.”

“I wondered if you might be.”

They looked levelly at one another, and, though Fitzgerald’s face was grim enough, he was not afraid of anything.

“Why was that?”

“Well, I didn’t treat her too well, I know. But she was on some kind of drug and was really making a damned nuisance of herself. Still, I shouldn’t have just kicked her out–I could have at least given her a lift to BART or something. This place is pretty remote. A car is a necessity.”

“Suppose you tell me the whole story.”

“I’ve known her for a while–met her through another artist I know in San Francisco. She was short on work and called me a couple of times to ask if she could model for me. I felt sorry for her and said OK about a month ago. I picked her up and brought her here–my studio’s in there, and you can see it, and see the sketches I did of her. It just wasn’t working–she’s not my type, and she had this feverish way of chatting that drove me nuts. So I gave her a check and drove her back to BART and that was that as far as I was concerned. But not for her, it seems.”

Mullen interrupted. “The modeling session was when?”

“I can tell you from my checkbook.”

Michael Fitzgerald rose from the window seat and walked easily into the next room, then returned with his checkbook. He proffered it and Mullen saw the entry–$300 paid to Rosie Marler two weeks before the weekend of her death.

“And then?”

“Last Saturday she turned up at my door. She’d apparently walked all the way from the bus stop, which is well over a mile. I couldn’t make her out. She was manic. I was tired–I’d done a little art show up north and had just got in when she appeared. I hate to say it, but the idea was that she couldn’t get me out of her mind and so on. I didn’t like to be ungallant–we Fitzgeralds are known to be the soul of courtesy to all ladies; brought up that way, as you can imagine.”

He had dropped into a slight brogue for a moment, and the two men exchanged a look of amused understanding.

“I take it a red flag went up in the case of Miss Rosie Marler.”

“Bright red. So I just kidded around with her, and listened to her as best I could, but she wasn’t making a lot of sense. I finally decided that the best thing would be to feed her, so I rustled up something–I’m not a bad bachelor cook and bottle-washer–and opened some wine, thinking it might calm her down. It did. She passed out. I can’t say I wasn’t relieved. I tipped her over onto that couch and threw a cover over her, then went to bed myself.”

Mullen’s face worked slightly, and Fitzgerald looked a question at him, but the moment passed. “And?” Mullen prompted.

“I washed up, did the usual, went to bed myself–in there. I locked my door, God help me. She woke me up in the small hours having some kind of fit, pounding on the door and crying and carrying on. I tried to get her to calm down, but I’d never seen anything quite like it. Finally, about six o’clock, even though it wasn’t quite light, I just got fed up. She hadn’t undressed at all, and she was a little thing–so I just frog-marched her to the door and shoved her out. She banged a little bit, and I put my head out and said that if she did that one more minute, the guard would be on her, and that up those stairs and down the road was the best place for her. Sometimes when you get really fed up you can get a tone in your voice that even a total loony will hear. She heard, and she went.”

“So that was that.”

“Not a pretty story, I know. But that was that.”

Mullen sighed and the two men once again maintained a level and communicating regard.

“I’m inclined to believe you.”

“I should damn well hope so!” Fitzgerald said, color flaring up into his Viking face. “I’m not accustomed to having people doubt my word. What happened to the silly woman that gets you involved? She complain?”

“She got herself killed.”

The artist clenched his teeth and grimaced.

“I might have known. She was that damned silly. But I blame myself for sending her out alone–I suppose that’s when it happened, isn’t it?”

“We’re a little unclear on the time of death. Was it raining when you showed her the door–and the road?”

“No, it wasn’t. I wasn’t that pissed off, and if it had been raining, I would have bundled her into my car and driven her to the train. It wasn’t even that cold, and she had a coat. It did rain later, though, and I remember hoping she’d made it to the bus or whatever by that time. I’d been trying to get a little sleep, but after that sort of episode, who could? It was at least an hour or two later that the rain started. By the way, what led you to me at all? The check?”

“Yes. Will you show me the blanket you threw over her?”

The request surprised Fitzgerald, but he complied, bringing for the Inspector’s inspection a large knit throw of soft, silky wool in vibrant bluish reds and greens.

“Looks warm,” he said. “Elegant, too.”

“A gift from an admirer,” said Michael Fitzgerald, with the kind of wryness that discourages questions.

The policeman then asked to see the sketches he had made of Rosie Marler. There were four in charcoal on paper and one somewhat more finished piece in acrylic. To Aaron Mullen, they looked disspirited, almost like student work. He glanced at other sketches and canvases and saw far more life and sureness of technique in every one. The pretty little nude in her conventional poses had been simply an interruption in the life and work of Michael Fitzgerald, as far as his visitor could tell.

“Actually, I’d rather do still lifes and outdoor stuff,” the artist said. He pointed at a stack of canvases.

Mullen looked through these with growing admiration. They were local studies in several lights and several seasons, verging sometimes on the abstract, but always strong. There was one in which the pink and orange flowers of spring striped the slope in harsh bands of light and shadow. Such a subject, from the brush of a less secure artist, might have been sentimental, but the canvas had force. Another concentrated on tawny rock, with a thatch of dry grass and a limpid sky; the fast, strong, broad strokes of color let one feel the wind of the place.

“I like these,” he said, “despite my ignorance of art.”

“Thanks. I hoped you’d say that,” laughed Fitzgerald.

“Do I strike you as such a rube?”

“God, no. Just diffident about your areas of uncertainty–and a little conventional.”

Mullen was not nettled–he thought that Fitzgerald had described him justly enough. He hoped the artist would not take his next remark as vengeful.

“That’s about where we found her, up there.”

He pointed to a spot on the far right of the canvas with the rippling flowers.

Fitzgerald made a stifled sound that was half groan and half sigh. “God,” he said. “What am I supposed to think about that?”

Mullen shrugged. “Nothing, I suppose. It’s a public park, after all. Lots of people have painted this place, I understand.”

“You found her, when? Sometime on Sunday?”

“That’s just a guess?”

“Of course! I swear to God! She wouldn’t have gone up there by herself. It was a beastly time, and even she would have known it was going to rain soon. Somebody must have picked her up as she was walking along, after I gave her the boot.” Fitzgerald fingered the sketches of Rosie Marler. “Poor beast,” he said. “Wish I’d been more of a gentleman–she might be alive, and I wouldn’t be entertaining policemen. Still, she was a mess. Couldn’t shut up or sit still for a second.”

They went back into the central room of the apartment. Michael Fitzgerald paced in suppressed fury.

“Look here, officer. How much trouble am I in?”

“Hard for me to say. At the moment, not too much. Probably none, if you’ve been telling the truth–though it’s a pity you have no witnesses.”

“Awful lot of people around here. Maybe someone saw her go. All these windows overlook the road, and people do get up early and peer out, I have no doubt. She made that bit of ruckus.”

“We’ll do our job, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

“I’ll be grateful. Very.”

They ended the interview on an easy note, and the policeman left. Two doors away, he knocked at Alice Perrin’s apartment, but there was no answer. He had his notes, and he went away thinking of rainstorms and quilts, wet and dry.

His appointment with Larry Dykstra, the association attorney, came next. This did not take long and was unproductive–Mr. Dykstra was candor itself. He recalled Sunday perfectly; he had been out walking his dog, as usual, for a good part of the afternoon. He was retired and spent a lot of time outside with the dog, an elderly setter whose filmy eyes rested on Mullen without either criticism or interest. Mr. Dykstra had not gone up the hill; with knees like his, he kept to the level. He had seen people coming and going but had not noticed anything out of the way and could not recall who was out and about. He wondered what the trouble was, of course. Mullen gave him a brief sketch, and he deplored it with obvious sincerity. If anything came back to him, he would be in touch. Mullen thanked him and got on with canvassing of the neighbors, a job at which Officer Chen was already at work.

“We’re not in the Iron Triangle any more, Toto,” Chen had said, referring to the desperate neighborhood in which they most often worked.

Mullen had watched Chen taking in the swept roads and paths, the hill-sheltered and light-dappled buildings, the agreeable and varied landscaping. Because he knew that much grim Chinese experience lay close to the surface of his colleague’s mind, he felt at a loss to react to the pleasantry with more than a smile. The popular reference interested him, coming from the serious, self-contained Chen. The odd instant passed, and they had judged it physically possible that the whole complex could have overlooked some part of Rosie Marler’s early morning ejection by the irritated Fitzgerald.

They both hit pay-dirt right away. Arnold Chen spoke with the pleasant young woman who lived above Fitzgerald, Caroline Sparv. She had been up early because of a sick cat; she had heard Fitzgerald’s door bang, heard someone pound on it and demand to be let in. It had struck her, because never before had any such disturbance come from Mr. Fitzgerald’s apartment. She had been frankly curious and had opened her door a crack, just in time to hear Mr. Fitzgerald tell the woman to go away. She had heard her go, and even glimpsed her running somewhat unsteadily down the drive moments later, but it had been too dark to know what sort of person she was or any details about her–just a vague impression of a small person, moving awkwardly. She put the time at “a little after six.”

Aaron Mullen happened onto an elderly insomniac in the next building who had been waiting for morning by staring out his solarium window. He had been rather surprised to see a young-looking girl running down the road from the south-east part of the complex. He had watched her, the only moving thing in the dull morning, until she disappeared into the gloom, slowing down as she came to the public street and turning north-east, as she would if she were going to town. Mr. Baird put the time at “soon after six.” He had seen no one else, not a car, no details. It had seemed odd to him, but this was a safe enough neighborhood, and people did go running and walking early, so he had suppressed any slight uneasiness. There were so many people in the condominiums, and a lot of coming and going, so it was impossible to say whether she was a resident or not; he felt he had never seen her before, but from the third floor, in that light, and with his aging eyesight, he could not be sure of much. A dark-haired girl, wearing a dark coat. Mullen thanked him and trudged away to Fitzgerald’s building.

“Just a quick question,” he said when the artist answered his knock.


“Rosie Marler’s coat?”

He thought a moment. “It was navy. A trench coat, but not really long.”

“Anything else about her clothes you can tell me?”

Fitzgerald smiled. “I know–I’ve had my quick question,” the policeman apologized.

“Not my best field. But I remember plain running shoes, nondescript and dirty, and tight jeans with some kind of decoration around the cuffs–I noticed because I thought it was a little silly, putting glittery stuff on jeans. A high-necked jersey, long-sleeved, dull crimson.”

“No logos or anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

“And the ‘glittery stuff’?”

“It was beading, actually. Metallic beads and fringe. Like this.”

He produced a small sketch-pad and drew a band of delicate arabesques, then added overlapping loops.

“Distinctive. Silver and gold and scarlet beads.”

Mullen took the sketch and thanked him gravely. “My first Fitzgerald,” he said. “It ought to be signed and dated.”

The artist, with a solemn glance, added his pencilled name and the date; they parted amicably.

No such garments as Fitzgerald had described had been found anywhere near the body–no garments of any sort, in fact. Mullen wearily supposed, as he drove past the slopes of the headland back toward town and his office, that they would have to search the whole area. He swore briefly as his left tire crossed a large and jagged chuckhole. With the infrastructure failing all over, watching the roads was one more of the many tiresome tasks of daily life.

Rosie Marler’s death did not make news. It might have, from any one of several “angles,” but somehow it did not. Alice was not sorry for that. Her nerves, in fact, were becoming worse as time passed, and not because of any fear of a lurking criminal in the neighborhood. She felt an odd security about that–whoever had killed Rosie had killed her, and had no interest in killing anyone else. She could not have said why she felt this, but it was a conviction. As for feeling so rattled still, she had read somewhere about that–the mind can enlarge upon a bad experience for a long time afterwards, and a physical reaction may set in that was absent at the time of the event. She had, for example, spent a great deal of time wondering if she would ever be able to climb that steep path and walk about on the ridge again–even in bright weather, even with a companion. She counseled herself to try it as one might get back behind the wheel of a car after a driving accident, but she could see herself trembling her way uphill and shying at every shadow. For the time being, she would stick to the level and walk in the parks and on the beaches.

On Saturday it was clear and breezy, typically fine. Her chores finished and no social engagements until much later, Alice walked halfway to the tunnel, past the first of the beaches and part of the park. There were people about, and traffic; it was a busy weekend scene such as people had enjoyed there countless times. Runners and joggers and bikers were in good supply for the time of year, and several young people were skating in one of the emptier parking lots. A park truck, sour-apple green, straddled the sidewalk while the uniformed worker did something mysterious to a gate. Alice gazed briefly to the west, admired the bay’s brilliant, shadow-dappled surface, and felt suddenly tired and alone. She turned back.

By the time she had got to the beach, however, she had talked herself out of her doldrums–it wouldn’t do to be in a bad mood for the Ritchies’ dinner party. Just to make sure that all the cobwebs–in which were tangled her loss of Arthur, the enervating niceness of her daily life and her job, this late murder of a pathetic woman–were blown away, she decided to take a turn or two on the sand.

It wasn’t very nice sand, nor very clean. The semi-circle of beach was pebbly and strewn with wood and plastic debris. Seaweed in dark masses sent up its rank salt smell. Broken glass glinted here and there, especially where the little waves broke. A plastic shoe rocked back and forth in the shifting waves. A gull swooped low, and a tug came by, its noise and the smell of its fuel carried shoreward on the steady breeze. Alice found it all bracing–it added up for her in a way that more pleasing surroundings did not always. She gazed at the bulk of Angel Island with all her usual affection, admired the lines of the headlands against the afternoon sky, then fell to scrutinizing the stones and broken shells and shards at the water’s edge. She sometimes took such bits home to put around potted plants.

She turned over with her shoe a bit of black plastic that was stuck in the sand and was surprised at the resistance; she gave it another nudge, and the edge of the plastic appeared, with something shining in it. How odd–it was nothing like the usual broken glass. She used her foot still, then crouched down to look at what was revealed. Too odd for words, and too frightening, too: It was one leg of a pair of pants, edged in a bright, elaborate fringe of beadwork. She tugged further at the plastic, and the bag came away from the sand, torn, with the pants tangled in it.

There was no question in Alice’s mind but that this garment had belonged to Rosie Marler. It was her size, her style, and she had been found without clothes except an anonymous T-shirt. The only question was how to cope with her discovery.

After a few moments’ thought, she moved the pants and the torn plastic above the tide-line and covered everything with what she hoped was a random assemblage of driftwood–there was no lack of old boards. She climbed up the crumbling incline from the shore to the park. As she sprinted across the lawn, she was irritated at herself for having come out only with her key and no money–at the park lavatory there was a telephone she could have used. A park worker, hefting a garbage can, cast her a curious look as she hurried by, making her wonder if her face showed her upset. It would take her ten minutes to get home.

She was just making breathless speed toward her door when Larry Dykstra appeared at her side.

“Oh, hello, Larry,” she said, about to hurry on.

“I hear you’ve been involved with the police over this body that was found up the hill,” he said.

“Well, yes.”

She felt his solemn eyes on her and wanted very much to get away, to call the Inspector, to have this further responsibility taken away from her. She wanted to get on with the nice little life she had been deploring so recently for its sweet regularity.

"So was I. Inspector Mullen made me a visit and asked about my whereabouts and so on. And did I have a dark green van–no. Or know who does–no. Or seen one parked along the road–no. All this is because, Alice?”

“Yes, I suppose it is because. I mentioned to him that I’d seen you on Sunday afternoon, when I came down from my walk, after I’d seen–what I saw, what turned out to be the body. As for the van, who knows?”

“No harm in being out, is there?”

“Of course not, Larry.”

She looked at him hard, and he smiled.

“You were part of the landscape, that’s all. I simply mentioned that, and there’s nothing to worry about....”

“You might have something to worry about, yourself, being up on the hill. As we know.”

“So I might,” Alice said. “Forgive me, but I’ve got to do an errand just now.”

“See you, Alice.”

She hurried into her apartment, not a little puzzled by the attorney’s manner. She wanted to protest that an aging widow is an unusual suspect in the murder of an artist’s model and junkie. Shaking her head at how little, it seemed, she knew these people among whom she lived, she dismissed him and his somewhat melodramatic menace. What, after all, had he been reading or watching on TV? Or had he simply meant something else, that she was in danger herself? That, too, was melodramatic–she hoped. She telephoned Mullen and told him of her find of the beaded pants and her disposition of them. He thanked her and asked her to meet him at the beach in twenty minutes. She glanced at her watch–four thirty. There was time; she decided she would drive, however. It worried her a little, some minutes later, to pass Larry Dykstra in front of the building. They exchanged their usual brief wave. Business as usual, she thought; and who are we and what are we to one another?

She parked at the beach and waited, bemused to see the green park truck pass by and head straight for one of the larger potholes, rattling and jouncing across the jagged patch. Inspector Mullen’s unmarked car pulled up seconds later. Their purposeful progress took them over the rough, flat grass to the short drop that led to the beach. Alice lifted a hand to point to the jumble of boards she had arranged over the pants and the plastic bag, but they turned to stare briefly at one another instead of moving on.

For it was obvious that someone had torn up her improvised hiding place and taken the evidence. Mullen did not even bother to ask Alice if she were sure of the place; the beach was small, perhaps fifteen yards, bounded on one end by six feet of tumbled boulders and on the other by ten sheer feet of riprap. The driftwood had been flung aside from a depression of damp sand.

“Was anybody around to see what you were doing?” he asked at last.

She shook her head. “I wasn’t aware of anyone. But someone must have seen me. If you go down there, you’ll see how sheltered it is–or seems, at least, when you’re there.”

He nodded.

“No one that you can recall, though?”

She scanned the open landscape, the overlooking cliffs across the road, the derelict piers, as if to bring back the scene as it was only an hour or so before.

“There could have been someone. There was a park worker up here when I left. There were a few kids over on the pier. Maybe a person walking along the road. But when I came this way just now, I passed Larry Dykstra, the attorney from the complex, walking along. Still, he wasn’t carrying anything....”

She turned to him, and he waited, understanding that something had come to her.

“Forget that last,” she said.

They moved back toward the parking lot.

“You’ve got an idea?” he prompted at last.

The afternoon wind was tuning up. A slight warmth rose from the asphalt, grateful to them both. He handed her a small piece of paper from his pocket book, and she studied it with interest.

“Yes,” she said, handing it back. “Gold and silver and dark red. Fringing some petite jeans.”

It was Michael Fitzgerald’s sketch.

“I’d be interested to know where you came by that,” she said.

He gave a short laugh. “A cop’s first try at connoisseurship, I suppose,” he said. “I asked Fitzgerald to do it for me, from memory.”

She shook her head. “No. Not Michael Fitzgerald,” she said. “I’d bet my life.” She paused. “‘When you know how, you know who.’”

He raised his brows.

“A quotation. Lord Peter Wimsey says it in one of the Dorothy L. Sayers stories.”

“Sorry. I’m not one for fiction–though I seem to recall some TV series?”

“Yes. Well enough done, too. I don’t imagine such things mean much to someone like you, though–no relation to your reality.”

“No. That might be the appeal. But I don’t have much time for escapes.”

“Ah,” she said, shaking her head, and they shared a smile.

She turned out of the parking lot and walked a few yards northward. She gestured up toward the fire road. Beyond the closed gate, it rose in a dark and rutted curve to the ridge, muddy here and there still, then disappeared behind scrub oak and bay.

“Those park trucks. Four-wheel drive, aren’t they?”

Instantly he saw what she meant, but they stood in silence for some moments.

“And the worker you saw when you were here?”

“He was loading a trash can onto a truck. He glanced at me. I just hurried on, wanting to get through to you. I think it was the same one who passed by again just as you drove up, too.”

The Inspector nodded. “It’s a direction for us,” he said.

Back home, she hurried to get ready for the evening at the Ritchies’.

Inspector Mullen put in some time on the routine of tracing park workers; he was irritated with himself for not knowing more about the organization and its protocols. Still, it was not long before he had a likely name–Ray Sanches–and some details. No one else had been on duty at the relevant time, and Sanches had been on this afternoon as well. He was a newcomer, still on probation, not a skilled park workman but seemingly competent. Nothing was known against him by the park brass. He was said to live alone in a bedroom community some thirty miles farther along the bay shore. Mullen sent two men out to bring him in for questioning. The Department of Motor Vehicles provided a license number for a five-year-old Saturn, white, and Mullen checked with the Highway Patrol. Mullen steeled himself against a growing confidence that might, not just superstitiously but practically, be dangerous: so easy to let something get past if you see yourself on the right track, he knew.

When ten o’clock passed with no developments, any confidence that had lurked in Mullen’s mind gave way to misgivings. He enlarged the net. One small piece of information came his way and had a chilling effect on him: apparently there was a very large image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on the rear window of the Saturn.

The talk at the Ritchies’ had been stimulating, and for that very reason Alice left early. She always found it difficult to come down after pleasing social events, and hoped for a quiet hour or two to compose herself before sleep. There had been more people than usual, and the rapid conversation had ranged in many directions, but always she had been conscious of keeping back her own unfinished drama.

Flora Ritchie was the sister of Morgan Evers, and they had met in Italy on Alice and Arthur’s first visit to her boss there. Others in the party were new to Alice, but several of them knew Morgan, and almost all of them were sentimentally disposed to adore Italy as she did. Opera had succeeded literature and travel and architecture, then came excursions into football and soccer, and finally some politics, and then wine–the rival merits of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino came up. The preferences were markedly indicative, Alice had thought. The fashionable young couple of attorneys, parents of an infant named Ashton, preferred the Rosso, Robert Ritchie defended the Brunello–always provided that it was adequately aged. The young couple kept on looking superior, and the male parent of Ashton added that the French had seen the light of late and were making their wine far more approachable, like the Rosso. Robert did not comment further, but, Alice noticed, he paid little attention to the couple thereafter. Since her own preference was for crusty people and austere wine, Alice approved.

What if they had known what was behind her reserve? Nothing, probably; indifference rather than shock, perhaps some moralizing. She considered what she knew of the Berkeley point of view and wondered whom they would see as victim. Where would she herself see guilt?

The little silver car ran easily down the steeps toward the Bay. In the clear, starry night, the spangles of the vast urban accretions around San Francisco Bay, as always, outshone the stars. She would have been totally content, she thought, if only Arthur had been beside her to share the sight and the recollections. What a wonderful place, but how divided, too. The prosperous bustled about their fine-tuned consumption, as at the Ritchies’, and the poor bustled about survival. Nothing much to be done. She shrugged off this mood to consider some questions of her work at Folium, and soon she was through the tunnel and close to home. Still, a funny old tune ran in her head, “She is more to be pitied than censured, she is more to be helped than despised....”

As the car curved into the driveway and the electric doors opened before her, Alice was brought back to the present by a slight shadowy movement half-caught in her rear-view mirror; she paused and looked carefully: nothing there. She eased the car forward into her space, switched off the ignition, and reached for her handbag. She glanced around before getting out, but the garage seemed as solemn and silent as always.

Her key was in the door lock when her senses became fully aroused to the sound of soft shoes on cement, some faint masculine perfume, and then, too late for action, a hand over her mouth and a strong pull of her body away from the car.

She could not see him, but she struggled. He spoke in her ear.

“How come you let her out like that?”

The voice was soft, not unpleasant, with a little quaver and the ghost of an accent.

The hand on her mouth relaxed a little, and she could turn enough almost to see him. He was small, shorter than herself, wiry, dressed in dark clothes.

“That girl–she crazy. How come you don’t bring her up better?”

Alice breathed hard, thinking wildly, then muttered. “Bring her up? I hardly even knew her.”

He shoved her rather hard.

“You know her. Her mother, I know you her mother. Now I have bad dreams forever, now I go to Hell because of her. You should bring her up better, teach her something, to be modest.”

They were face to face now, and he had let her go. She could see that he was in agony, that he was about to break down. She was trembling, but there was a core of her that was not afraid.

“I’m not her mother. She was a lost soul.”

“Look at you!” he screamed, and held her arms hard. “You look at you! Just like her! I know she your girl. You lookin’ for her, you after her, you worried for her.”

Alice shook her head in disbelief and sorrow.

“No,” she said. “No. You are quite wrong. I’m sorry, sorry for you. But she was not my daughter.”

After one long look at her serious face, the young man began to sob, letting her go and twisting around in a way that wrung her heart. She touched him gently on the shoulder.

“What is your name?”

“I am Ray. Raimondo, they call me Ray.”

“It will be all right, Ray. There’s help for you, don’t worry.”

He beat his head with his hand. “No,” he screamed. “After that, not even the Virgin herself will help me, my mother will not help me, my father will look at me like a snake.”

The door from the building opened, and Alice looked across to see Aaron Mullen moving toward them, calm and purposeful, followed by three uniformed officers. She put her hand on Ray’s arm again.

“It’s over now,” she said. “No one will hurt you, and pretty soon you will be able to forget it all. You have to tell them all the truth, though, everything. More than you told me. I’m sorry.”

He submitted without a word, and the officers walked him to a patrol car waiting just outside the garage gate. Alice and Inspector Mullen followed them, watched the white car with its complicated electronic gear and lights hurry of into the soft night.

“His Saturn’s up in the outside lot. I’ll get somebody to tow it away when I can. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let him get so far, but he slipped into the bushes and down here. Bad timing all around. You weren’t hurt?”

“No, just shaken.” She paused. “He seemed to think I was Rosie Marler’s mother. He said there was a resemblance.”

He shook his head. “I can’t see it,” he said. “The poor guy’s beside himself.”


He put a steadying hand under her elbow and they moved toward the garage elevators.

“I don’t want to forget Rosie, though,” Alice said. “She’s been a wasted creature for years now, but she’s no more to blame....” That song! She shook her head at the vagaries of her own mind. “Only a lassie who ventured, on life’s stormy paths ill-advised....” Dear God.


They had reached her door and stood looking at one another, calm now but grim.

“I think I’ll have a whisky and get maudlin about the human condition. Care to join me?”

He glanced at his watch.

“Thanks. Just one for me.”

“Maybe I’ll skip the maudlin bit.”

“Who knows? We might both need a good cry.”

She laughed, however, and invited him to sit while she got glasses and whisky. That she was horribly tired came to her as she handed him his drink, and a glance at his face told her that he was drained and weary too.

“You might like to know that all the while we were looking for Sanches up around Pinole and Hercules, he was just driving around here and sitting in his car. Your security man thought something was funny when he drove into the parking lot and sat, and he called us.”

“Good for Ricky.”

“He’s a new guy at the park.”

“I guessed as much, because I see the workers when I walk.”

“I suppose you do.”

The silence that fell between them was easy enough, but Mullen finished his drink and rose to go.

“Be seeing you, I guess,” Alice said.

“In court,” he laughed. “Yes. Lots more to do, in fact. By the way, we found some of those little beads in the park truck. And hair. Have to find that coat, and the rest.”

They exchanged a long look from beneath their shared weariness, and a quick handshake.

“Aren’t you an odd sort of policeman, for this difficult part of the world?” she asked, holding open the door.

“Native of the place,” he said. “Grew up just the other side of your tunnel.”

His face set to acknowledge the grimness that lay beyond their territory, and was his sphere of work; but they understood one another. “It’s a long story.”

“So many are,” she laughed. “Perhaps I’ll hear some of it another time.”

He nodded, but almost did not acknowledge her polite comment; they were getting beyond tiredness, he thought, slipping toward stolidity; he had to go. “Thought I’d see what I could do,”
he added, though he knew she did not need his vague explanatory reference to early-day idealism.

“Ah. Well. Good for you. And thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

It was of all there was to do, for everyone, and of new beginnings, that Alice was thinking when she left for the office next morning, after a wakeful night. She might have stayed at home, tired as she was, but it seemed to her that work and routine would be healing. The beauty of getting out in the world, of taking part–as Rosie Marler would never do again, as Ray Sanches would never do again as he had once done.

Habitual motions took her out of the garage and into the fine light of a glorious wintry morning once more. She drove along, awake to everything, grateful for mercies small and large. She saw that some quick, mysterious powers-that-be had come by and filled in the chuckholes–patchily, it was true, and incompletely. How things got done! Wonderful. Still, the rain was far from over for the year, and drivers would be zigging and zagging around those same old hazards before the month was out.

BIO: Ann is a Bay Area native and long-time devotee of the mystery genre. Joe D'Ambnrosio of Scottsdale has previously published her LX Commute: My Sentence, a memoir of getting around in the Bay Area; and a story on disc with book included, Through A Glass. She now at work on A Commonplace Book of Tea, also to be published by Studio D'Ambrosio.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Deftly woven and evocative interior and exterior atmosphere. Characters reveal themselves in actions and with each other in dialogue. Well done!