I wonder if, when a person kills another person--by accident or deliberation--regret and sadness, as well as a sense of revenge served well, affects the killer. Would I have ever considered or felt any of those emotions? Would I have chosen to commit an act as retribution or mistake? Does anyone have the right to deprive another human being of his or her allotted three-score and ten?
I never really imagined having to decide. Never imagined even having to consider the possibility.
I'm still not sure how I feel about what happened. Maybe the shock hasn't worn off yet … maybe tomorrow I'll feel better … or worse. All I know is, I'm having problems dealing with the situation. I’ve been unable to sleep. Every night I lay in my bed going through what happened. Could I have changed anything?
So many questions. So many recriminations. So few answers.
I move through life with this pall of sadness and remorse hanging over me. There is nothing I can do to dispel it. It has become a part of me, like my own heartbeat.
All that is left for me is to carry on … and do the best I can.
My descent into a miasma of deceit, betrayal and death began on a Monday morning.
Monday is a good day for someone to hire a private investigator. The weekend is out of the way and Monday is a fresh place to start something. And I, fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, am often chosen for the job.
My name is Terry Strong and I am a private investigator. My motto: “I spy on people. I nose into their most personal spaces and dirty secrets and tattle all.” I plan on engraving this and placing it above my desk.
The name Terry comes from my birth name, Teresa and Strong is the only memento I took from my ex-husband, Kyle Strong. I'm the head honcho, you might say, of Strong Investigations which consists of me and my colleague, Jackson Jefferson, whom I call my Black Sherlock. He's not only a great investigator, but also a super Tae Kwon Do instructor. All I know about kicking butt I owe to him.
So right on schedule, Monday morning, my office door opened and a red-haired woman of about thirty burst into my office like a small tornado.
Small as she was, her personality was anything but. She flung her Gucci bag onto my desk and herself into the chair facing me. "Are you Terry Strong?” The forcefulness of her question offered no chance of denial.
When I admitted that I was, she sniffed and asked me for a Kleenex.
I quickly passed her the box of Kleenex I kept in my bottom desk drawer. She grabbed the box like a drowning sailor clutching a life raft.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“No. Sean killed my brother and I’ve got to find my cousin.”
I stared at her in shock. “Someone killed your brother? Have you told the police?”
“Yes, of course I have.” She gave me a quick exasperated scowl. “Sean’s in jail right now, but my cousin doesn’t know what happened and I’ve got to find him.”
After catching my breath, I asked, “Can you give me a little more information?”
“My name is Naydeen Mattson and Sean killed my brother.” She sobbed into her wad of Kleenex. “You’ve got to help me find my cousin.”
“Do you think something has happened to your cousin?”
“No. I don’t know.” Naydeen laid her soggy tissues on my desk and began rummaging in her purse. “He doesn’t know about Artie.”
“And Artie is your brother?”
She sniffled and grabbed a couple more Kleenex. “Yes. His name is Artie Mattson. Like mine.” She gave me another scowl and swiped at her nose a couple times then fumbled in her purse and came up with a pack of cigarettes. After a few tries she extracted one, flicked open a gold cigarette lighter and lit the cigarette. “I need to smoke. It’s okay, right?” She inhaled a big lung full of toxic substance.
“Actually, it’s not.”
The image of smoke molecules invading the little air sacs in her lungs, clogging and sealing up all the passages, made me shudder inwardly.
"Oh. Sorry," she said. Smoke issued from her mouth like a dragon's breath. Her head twisted from side to side while she gestured with the gold lighter. "Well. What am I supposed to do with it now that I've lighted it?” She gave me another look of exasperation. Her long, false eyelashes flicked up and down. "I don't see any ashtray."
In my bottom desk drawer I picked up an ashtray I keep for just such an emergency. "You may use this." I pulled my face into what I hoped was a sincere smile and placed the ashtray in front of her.
She crushed the cigarette to death with sharp, stabbing motions. "You must forgive me. I forget sometimes that others don't smoke."
She opened her purse and tossed in the cigarettes and lighter. "In my line of work just about everyone smokes. The pressure is so great, we need some sort of narcotic to ease the strain."
Apparently, Naydeen was an acquisitions agent for a small import-export company. Her job was to acquire things, she said. She glanced around my office with little jerking motions of her head, as though she were searching for something. She must not have found what she was looking for, because she pinned her baby blues on me with a vengeance. "I'm not here to talk about what I do for a living. I was referred by Rance Dubois, my attorney. He says he knows you."
Rance Dubois was an old friend and super-attorney. We knew each other from college, CSUF, California State University, Fullerton. Rance was studying pre-law and I was studying psychology and aspiring to be a police officer. But when my friend, Damara, was killed her first day on the beat as a police officer, I changed my mind. I completed my psych degree and started training with a private investigator. The mystery and fun of figuring out puzzles were just what I was made for.
Her patronizing attitude woke up my fighting Irish temper. Rather than smack her in the chops, I rose. "Could I interest you in a cup of coffee?”
Coffee is my biggest vice. I love it. I drink it as often as I can. I don’t think I could function without my caffeine fix. Tea has caffeine, so does chocolate, but only coffee satisfies my addiction.
Even so, making coffee is my biggest challenge or -- I should say -- failure. Jack is our official coffee maker and he fills the spot perfectly. But Jack wasn't in this morning -- he was stuck out on a fraudulent injury surveillance -- and I had made the brew. It's not undrinkable, but it lacks a certain finesse that Jack brings to it, even though he's not a coffee drinker himself.
I filled two mugs and brought them to the desk. "Cream and sugar?"
"Both. Thanks." Naydeen drummed her long, red nails on the desktop.
In the file cabinet drawer I looked under "C" for the powdered creamer. Sugar was kept under "S." A plastic spoon extracted from under “P” accompanied the mug I placed before Naydeen.
Back in my chair, I sipped my coffee while she spooned several dollops of creamer and three heaping spoonfuls of sugar into hers. Her movements were a concert of hyperactivity. She stirred the coffee as she spoke. "Like I said, I need to find my cousin." The powdered coffee creamer disappeared little by little in the whirlpool of her cup.
I pulled out a legal-sized tablet and chose a pen from the tin can covered in construction paper I had made when I was eight years old. "Fine. First, I need to tell you that my fee is seventy dollars an hour plus expenses. We'll agree on the amount of the retainer after we've discussed your particular needs. If any of the retainer remains after I've located the subject, or we've cancelled our contract, I'll refund it to you. Is that satisfactory?"
We agreed on the fees and I made notes. Her cousin’s name was Wayne Caldwell. She couldn’t remember exactly how old he was, but she recalled that he was about six years older than her twenty-nine years.
A little crease appeared between her eyes. "Why? What difference does it make how old he is?"
"Searching in old-age homes is an exercise in futility if I know Wayne's only thirty-five.”
His last known address was in Santa Ana, a city about eight miles from my upstairs office which was located in a sparsely populated building on 17th Street, in Costa Mesa, California. She had an old phone number for Wayne but informed me that he wasn’t there…she had tried it already. “Number no longer in service.”
As far as an occupation was concerned, he didn’t seem to have one. When I asked how he lived or paid rent or ate, a tiny frown marred the area above her eyes. "Why, he's rich."
Oh. Silly me.
“Why do you want to find Wayne?”
"What difference does it make?" Her back straightened and she pinched her lips together.
"The difference is I won't take on the job unless you tell me. It's against my policy to search for someone without knowing why." Too many times I had heard of investigators being hired to search for someone when the client only wanted to collect on some deal or otherwise do harm to the missing person. I didn’t want to be responsible for finding a person who did not want to be found by the very person hiring me. I tried to avoid that problem by insisting that when I find who the client is looking for, I will not divulge his or her location without permission from the newly found person.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "All right." Her face took on a different aspect: tears glistened in her eyes and the corners of her mouth sagged downward. "I need to find Wayne to give him the things Artie left him."
"All right." All the tension I'd been holding in evaporated. You'd think that with my psych degree, I would have realized there was something bothering her. Most people aren't obnoxious without having a reason -- and that reason is usually something so big and scary or sad, that they compensate for the pain by covering it up with over-reactive behavior. Sort of like: “a good offense is the best defense.”
I muted the tone of my voice and said, "I'm sorry that you lost your brother. What happened?"
Naydeen seemed to lose her brittleness as tears overflowed her lower lids. My attitude toward her softened. "He was murdered three months ago by his lover, Sean Gallard."
An electric shock ran up my back. "Sean Gallard? The artist?" I had known Sean during my college days at Cal State Fullerton. I remembered him as a slight, bashful young man. He hadn't seemed capable of killing anyone. But time changes everyone. Even me. I've grown fifteen years older since I was nineteen and struggling to pay my way through college by modeling.
Naydeen pulled the cigarettes back out of her purse. Her tears had been exchanged for anger. "Yes. The same. At their house in Newport Beach. He and my brother got into a fight and Sean hit him over the head with the fireplace poker." She dropped the cigarettes back into the purse, fished out another tissue and blew her nose. "Poor Artie. I hope they give Sean the electric chair. I don't want to talk about it anymore." Anger defeats grief.
She hadn’t seen her cousin, Wayne Caldwell for a very long time. All she knew was that he liked women and antiques. His mother lived in New Jersey and his father had been out of the scene for years. There were no brothers or sisters to contact. He was an only child.
Wayne’s mother, Aunt Elaine, lived with Naydeen’s widowed mother, but they had no idea where Wayne might be.
"So…no friends…no relatives…other than a mother and aunt in New Jersey."
"No one. Now that Artie is gone, only me, Wayne, my mom and Aunt Elaine."
I asked if he had any outstanding physical characteristics.
She laughed a tinkling trill. "Only his face. It's beautiful. He has a dimple right here in his chin and his eyelashes are this long. Why men always seem to get the longest lashes, I'll never understand. We poor girls have to have implants in order to compete."
She handed me a snapshot of a man clad in swimming briefs -- very brief swimming briefs. His hair was dark and curly and his muscles well-developed. His eyes and lop-sided grin looked as though they'd tantalize anyone who came in contact with them. My fingers fairly tingled just holding it. I put the photo down.
"Is there anything else you can tell me about him?"
With a far away gleam, Naydeen's eyes looked up toward the ceiling and her lips curved in a knowing grin. "He's really something." She brought her eyes down to mine. "Be careful. He'll seduce you with those eyes before you know what hit you."
Naydeen Mattson signed a contract and gave me a four-thousand-dollar check as a retainer. I promised to supply her with updates every couple of days and she left.
Jack still hadn't come in. I gave him a call on his cell phone.
"Hey, Terry, what's up?"
"Just wondering how you're doing out there among 'em."
"I'm getting tired of sitting here in front of this house waiting for this guy to do something stupid. I've been here since six-thirty and he still hasn't done anything. I hope he picks up a four-hundred-pound package or starts digging in the back yard before lunch. I'm already hungry."
"Hang in there. If he's faking, he's got to slip up sometime. Tell you what. If you're still waiting at lunchtime, I'll get something and meet you there. We can have a picnic in your car."
"Why can't we use your car?"
"What's the difference?"
"I don't want crumbs in my car -- draws ants."
I hung up and turned off the coffee maker. I locked the door behind me, went down the stairs and out the front door to the parking lot and my car. My office is on Seventeenth Street in Costa Mesa, California. The building is old and there aren't a lot of tenants, which suits me just fine -- makes for a parking lot with few cars and a ladies' room that's almost always empty.
I looked for my favorite gardener, Jose, and his new son-in-law until I remembered today was Monday. They come to nurture the plants on Tuesdays. But the whole family had gone to Mexico to visit Jose's mother. Too bad. I always enjoy trying out my Spanish on Jose, although being able to converse in Spanish is not necessary. He speaks perfect English without an accent.
So, denied my opportunity to mutilate the Spanish language, I stepped on the stones between the plants and opened my car door. The first stop I wanted to make in the search for Wayne Caldwell was in Santa Ana, but Sean Gallard kept popping into my thoughts. How was it possible that he had killed someone? I wanted to know more about what happened. So…the perfect person to know everything about murder in Newport Beach had to be my Sometime Significant Other, Homicide Lieutenant Carlson Black.
Our relationship fluctuates between 'close' and 'barely speaking.' Right now we were at the 'almost getting back together' point. Our tempers had gotten in our way not long ago, and the resultant tempest hadn't quite died down. We were on the verge of forgiving each other -- each of us waiting for the other to extend the peace pipe. At least, that's the way I hoped it was. Now, it seemed as though I'd be the one to offer it up even though it went against my ingrained stubbornness.
I fired up the old buggy and wended my way through the traffic gauntlet to the Newport Beach Police Department. I found a parking place within walking distance and presented myself at the counter.
The regular receptionist, Tammy, wasn’t in. Her replacement gave me a huge crocodile grin. "Good morning."
I checked behind me to see if she was speaking to someone else. There was no one. I returned her smile, albeit a little belatedly. "Good morning. I'd like to speak to Lieutenant Black, please."
Dimples punctured her cheeks. "Yes, I know."
"Aren't you Terry Strong?”
She pushed a few buttons on her telephone and shrugged. "Well?”
Are there no secrets in life, anymore?
After speaking in an undertone, she hung up and turned back to me. "You may go right in.” Her smile spoke of a cat with a mouthful of canary.
She buzzed the door when I reached it. I pushed through and headed down the hall toward Carl's office. My fingers tingled with apprehension. I breathed deeply a couple of times to calm my juddering heart. With a smile plastered on my face, I turned the knob and pushed open the door.
Rather than quiet my nervousness, seeing Carl's six-foot, slim figure and square-jawed, kind face, gave an impetus to my impending cardiac arrest.
"Come in, come in.” He stood and grinned, his mis-matched hazel eyes -- one more blue and the other more brown -- sparkled.
My knees quivered and I sought the relative safety of the chair in front of his desk. "Hi, Carl.” I could hear the quaver in my voice.
Aargh. So much for nonchalance.