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Wolf in the Shadows
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Muller’s popular heroine, San Francisco sleuth Sharon McCone, faces her greatest challenge when her boyfriend disappears while delivering a $2 million ransom for a kidnapped researcher. Each of Muller’s mysteries sells more than the previous, and this 14th ties into her new July hardcover Till the Butchers Cut Him Down.
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Monday, June 7
"Hey, where're you going in such a hurry? I need to talk with you."
Hank Zahn's hand gripped my shoulder as I tried to squeeze by him on the front stairs of All Souls Legal Cooperative's main building. He jerked me to such an abrupt halt that I nearly lost my footing on the fog-damp step.
"Sorry," my boss added, steadying me with his other hand and whacking me on the elbow with his briefcase.
"Let go of me," I said through gritted teeth, "before we both fall down and end up in matching leg casts."
Hank did as I told him, running his free hand over his wiry gray-brown hair. "Sorry," he repeated.
"Just see that it doesn't happen again." I kept going, hoping to make a getaway while he was still befuddled.
"Wait!" he called.
I sighed and turned. "What?"
"I need to talk with you before the partners' meeting at three."
It was close to noon now. "What about?"
Hank's eyes grew evasive behind his thick horn-rimmed glasses. "Oh, some things to do with the reorganization."
So they'd finally coined a term for it—reorganization. It referred, I supposed, to the mixed bag of changes that had gone into effect during All Souls's transition from a small neighborhood law cooperative to one of northern California's largest legal-services plans. At any given time during the past year you could have found at least one employee reeling from some change in job status or description, and now it appeared it was to be the turn of their chief investigator. From the look in Hank's eyes, I wasn't going to like what I heard. Still, I had my priorities.…
"Hank," I said, "I'm working a case, and I've got to take off."
"I really need to—"
"I'll try to get back to you before three."
"If not …" He paused, looking downright guilty now.
"The partners would like you to attend the meeting."
Bad sign. Very bad. What the hell was this? Surely they didn't plan to fire me? There had been a number of dismissals lately, and Lord knew I'd played fast and loose any number of times with what few rules All Souls had, but I was a good investigator, and they damn well knew it.
I frowned, but before I could say anything, Hank fled up the steps. "Be there," he called back to me.
I watched him go inside, his shoulders hunched under the burden of his guilty knowledge, then shrugged and headed downhill, where my old red MG was sandwiched between the corner and a fireplug.
* * *
All the way to Oakland Airport I fretted. I'd just come off an investigation that had turned into a flat-out case of obsession, and I'd expected to give such behavior a rest for a while, but here I was tying myself into emotional knots a day and a half later. From All Souls in San Francisco's Bernal Heights district to Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay Bridge, I obsessed about my job. From Treasure Island to the airport, I obsessed about Hy.
Hy—Heino—Ripinsky. Gentleman sheep rancher and director of an environmental foundation in the Mono County town of Vernon on the shore of Tufa Lake. Multitalented: airplane pilot, book collector, naturalist, sometime diplomat, sometime protester for worthy causes. Long rap sheet to go with the latter. Multilingual: English, Spanish, Russian, and French, speaking all with unaccented fluency. Tall, lanky, hawk-nosed, with shaggy dark-blond hair and a droopy mustache. Given to rugged outdoorsman's clothing, but also at home in formal fund-raising attire. A gentle, passionate man, but a man whom I'd also heard described as dangerous, perhaps violent.
And he did have his darker side. Tragedy in his background: one wife, Julie Spaulding, who had, as he put it, saved him from hell and later died of a debilitating disease. Julie, who had understood his self-destructive urges and wisely established the Spaulding Foundation to occupy his lonely hours. Mystery in his background, too: a nine-year hole, years away from Tufa Lake about which rumors abounded. Rumors, from employment by the CIA to a prison term—and none, I was convinced, that came close to the true story.
Hy refused to tell me the truth, even after we became lovers late in March. The barrier of silence had driven me to set up a case file containing what fragmentary information about his past I'd been able to gather. A file that I'd destroyed only a little over a week ago, convinced I had no right or need to pry into what he seemed determined to conceal, and had set up once again just this morning when I learned from his assistant at the foundation that Hy had apparently staged a deliberate and well-thought-out disappearance.
At first tracking him down had seemed like an adventure, perhaps a response to a subtle challenge on his part. But after an hour of thought, I began to wonder if the disappearance was deliberate after all. Hy didn't play games, not that kind. Now tracking him down seemed imperative. Now I was afraid for him.
* * *
Oakland Airport was nearly socked in by fog, and the wind gusted across its north field, where the general aviation terminal was located. A couple of corporate jets were fueling up, but otherwise there was little activity. I skirted the terminal building to the small aircraft tie-downs.
The wind made the Cessnas and Beechcrafts and Pipers strain at the chains that tethered them; their wings creaked and shivered, looking deceptively fragile. I moved quickly among them until I spotted Hy's Citabria Decathlon in the tie-down where he'd parked it last Wednesday morning. Even if it hadn't been in the same place, I would have known it instantly by the blue silhouette of a gull that seemed to soar against the white background and the identification number, 77289. It was a small, high-winged plane—tandem two-seater, and aerobatic. Hy had once proudly informed me that it could fly upside down, but so far, thank God, he hadn't treated me to that experience.
As I approached the Citabria, I felt deflated, a little shaky, even. I supposed that in the back of my mind I'd hoped to find it gone, learn that Hy was on his way back to Tufa Lake, and be able to stop worrying. But seeing it here brought the gravity of the situation home to me, and now I was sure that Hy's disappearance wasn't a playful challenge to my investigatory abilities.
When we'd climbed out of the plane last Wednesday morning, back from a Memorial Day weekend vacation in the White Mountains, he'd said he planned to refuel and immediately continue on to San Diego, where one of his many unnamed old buddies had a business proposition to make him. True to form, Hy hadn't given me a hint as to what the proposition might be or where to reach him, had merely said he'd fill me in if it worked out. Probably I should have become concerned for him sooner, because he hadn't called me. One thing— practically the only thing—I could depend on Hy for was to keep in touch.
"Can I help you with something, ma'am?" One of the linemen, bundled against the cold in a down jacket, appeared around the tail of the Citabria. Hy often claimed that a pilot could instantly identify an airport by looking at a picture of the line personnel—in Burbank, for example, they all resembled movie actors—and I had to admit that this one, with his unshorn hair and single earring, had a touch of nearby Berkeley about him.
"This plane," I said, resting my hand on the Citabria's wing, "has it been moved since last Wednesday?"
The man shook his head, then looked more closely at me. "You were the passenger, I remember."
"Well, it's been here all along. The people at the counter in the terminal are getting a little curious; fellow said he'd only be tied down overnight, and it's coming up on a week now. He doesn't show pretty soon, they'll have to do some checking."
"He said he'd be staying here in the area?"
I couldn't believe Hy had lied to me about his destination. That wasn't his style; rather than lie, he'd simply employ silence. "Did he mention where?"
"Not to me. In fact, at first he wasn't going to stay at all. Said he was going to make a phone call, then fuel up. But when he came back outside, he told me his plans had changed and got his gear."
"And went where? Did somebody pick him up?"
The lineman shrugged. "Didn't notice."
"Well, thanks for your help." I dug in my bag and gave him one of my cards. "If he comes back or calls in, anything like that, will you get in touch with me?"
His eyes widened slightly, the way some people's do when they realize they've been talking to a private investigator. "Sure. You might want to check with Sandy at the desk inside. She probably knows more about this."
"I'll do that." I gave the Citabria a last glance and headed for the terminal.
Sandy had curly auburn hair and a friendly freckled face, and reminded me a little of my assistant, Rae Kelleher. When I explained what I was after, she pulled the card Hy had filled out and let me see it. All it gave was his name, address, and the plane's registration number. He'd also told her that he only intended to tie down overnight and had asked that they have the Citabria refueled.
"The lineman told me that Mr. Ripinsky originally came inside to make a phone call," I said, handing the card back to her.
She nodded and motioned toward the pay phones. "He did that before he checked in with me."
I myself had made a brief call before driving back to the city; Hy must have come in very soon afterward. "Did you notice if it was local or long-distance?"
"Long-distance. He came over and asked me for change for the phone, but I couldn't spare any, so he said he'd use his credit card,"
"Did he make just the one call?"
"No, two. And he wrote something down, maybe directions."
"And then he checked in with you?"
"Yes. Afterward he went outside, and a little while later I saw him talking with Jerry, one of the linemen who was just going off shift. I got the impression they know each other pretty well. Does Mr. Ripinsky fly in here a lot?"
"Fairly often. Is Jerry working today?"
She shook her head. "He's on vacation—visiting his folks in the Midwest, I think. Won't be back till next week."
Dead end for now—dammit.
"Jerry gave him a ride," Sandy added. "Probably to the main terminal."
"What makes you think they went there?"
"Because Jerry's seeing a waitress at the snack bar there and he usually goes over and has breakfast when he gets off."
"You're a good observer."
"Well, I had a good subject." She winked at me. "Mr. Ripinsky's a very attractive man."
* * *
I could think of only two reasons Hy could have had for going to the main terminal: to catch a connecting flight to a city that was far enough outside the Citabria's range to make flying himself there a hassle, or to rent a car. And since he'd told both the lineman and Sandy that he only planned to tie down overnight, the latter was the more likely. It was close enough to the time of day when he would have arrived at the terminal that I reasoned the car-rental clerks would be the same ones who were on duty that morning; I started at Hertz and worked my way along the counters, showing the photo of Hy that I kept in my wallet. At a small cut-rate firm called Econocar—trust Hy not to squander on inessentials—I got lucky.
The young black man with a high pillbox haircut recognized Hy immediately. "Yeah, he rented from us," he said. "It was a slow morning, and I remember him because he was carrying a bunch of expired credit cards. Had a hell of a time finding one that wasn't. He joked about it, said he couldn't be bothered with cutting them up and signing the new ones." He shrugged skeptically.
"In his case, it's the truth. Do you recall how long he planned to keep the car, or if he returned it?"
"Can you find out?"
He hesitated, frowning. "I'm not sure I can get that kind of information, or if I should be giving it out."
I flipped from Hy's picture to my identification. "It's a missing-person case. His plane's tied down at North Field, and they need to free the space."
"Well, if it's airport business … The cars're tracked individually by vehicle number, so I should be able to pull it up." He turned to his computer and typed, peered at the screen, typed some more. After a couple of minutes he said, "He kept the car for four days. Was returned on Saturday to SFO."
"What kind of car was it?"
"Ninety-two Toyota Cressida. Blue." The clerk smiled. "He asked me what the hell Cressida meant. I didn't know. Then he goes, 'How can I risk my life on the freeways in something called that—especially when I don't even know what it means?' "
I smiled, too. Hy's interest in—and knowledge of—cars stopped around the year his ancient Morgan had been manufactured. "And that's all the information you can access?"
"Yeah. Anything else you'll have to check with our people at SFO."
"You know the name of the supervisor down there?"
"Dave Fry. He's at the car-return area, not the counter in the terminal."
"Thanks for your trouble."
"Don't mention it. Good luck finding the guy."
* * *
Before I left the terminal I went to the snack bar and asked for the waitress who was seeing a North Field lineman named Jerry. The woman behind the counter pointed out a petite blonde named Katie who was juggling four plates with skill worthy of a magician, and said she'd send her to me when she was free. While I waited I nursed a cup of coffee.
The sight of my I.D. turned Katie's blue eyes a shade wary. Yes, she said, Jerry had come in for breakfast last Wednesday morning. "What's he done?" she asked.
"Nothing that I'm interested in. Did he mention giving somebody a ride over here from General Aviation?"
She frowned. "I don't … Wait—the guy with the Citabria?"
"That's the one."
"Yeah, he did mention it. The guy's not really a friend of his, but they talk when he flies in here. Jerry wants one of those Citabrias real bad, and the guy … What's his name?"
"Right, how could I forget that one? Well, Hy told Jerry he'd let him know if he heard about a used one for sale cheap." She shivered. "I sort of hope he doesn't. Those planes scare me to death."
"Did Jerry say why Hy needed the ride or where he was going?"
"Just that he'd only landed to drop off his girlfriend and refuel, but then he'd made a phone call and found out that the plans had gotten switched around on him. He was pissed because if he'd made the call a few minutes earlier, he could've caught a ride into the city with his girlfriend instead of having to rent a car. What's going on, anyway? Is this Hy in some kind of trouble?"
"Some kind." I gave her a conspiratorial smile. "I'm the girlfriend."
For a moment Katie looked dismayed; then she laughed. "I know how that goes," she said. "If I was a detective, I'd've gotten the goods on Jerry months ago."
I thanked her and left the terminal, trying to sort out what had happened last Wednesday morning. Hy was sorry he hadn't been able to ride into the city with me; that meant he'd felt no need to conceal whatever he planned to do there. Maybe that would make tracing his movements easier.
* * *
Dave Fry, manager of the Econocar lot on the frontage road near SFO, looked like a very depressed individual. I could see why. His desk in the office shack was heaped with unprocessed paperwork; the windswept lot was full of unrented cars; the terminal shuttle bus stood idle. I saw only one other employee, a young Asian man who sat on the step of the bus, looking as down in the dumps as his boss. When I showed Fry my identification, he sighed and shrugged—obviously expecting some kind of trouble and resigned to it.
"That car was returned after office hours on Saturday," he told me. "What they do, they drop the keys and paperwork in the lockbox outside, and we bill their credit cards."
"May I see the paperwork?"
Fry looked at the desk in front of him, mouth turning down. "Someplace here," he muttered, pushing a couple of piles around, then lifting another and peering under it as if he hoped a pair of helping hands might reach out to him. After a few moments of fumbling, he worked a folder free of the stack; it had a yellow Post-it note stuck to its flap. "Hey, that's right," he said. "The car you're asking about is the one that came in damaged."
Fry examined the envelope. "Dented right front quarter panel and busted headlight." He held it out to me.
I took it and examined the Post-it note. The message on it said to bill all charges for repairs to American Express, and the writing wasn't Hy's. His was more like printing—bold and sprawling. This was fine script that reminded me of Hank Zahn's nearly illegible scribbling.
Quickly I looked inside at the contract, where the credit card had been imprinted. It had Hy's name on it and also that of the Spaulding Foundation. I took my notebook from my bag and scribbled down the credit-card number and expiration date, then handed the folder back to Fry. "There's no one at all on duty here after hours?" I asked. "Not even a security guard?"
He motioned through the window at the lot. "Lady, does our volume of business suggest that we could afford a guard?"
He had a point. "Is the car still here on the lot?"
"Yeah. It's not going into the shop till tomorrow."
"May I have a look at it?"
Fry's eyes narrowed. "The car wasn't used … well, like in a crime?"
"Not to my knowledge. This is just a routine skip trace." Didn't I wish.
He nodded. "Then I don't see any reason you shouldn't take a look. Space thirty-four, back against the fence. Hasn't been moved since it was returned. You'll have to find it yourself; I can't leave the office."
I went outside and crossed the lot. The Cressida was pulled in, nose against the fence, badly dented and very dirty. I ran my finger over the damaged quarter panel, and it came away with a coating of fine gray-black dust, like ash. I went around and slipped into the driver's seat. It was drawn up so that a much shorter person than Hy—or than I, for that matter— could drive it.
The shaky feeling I'd experienced when I first saw the Citabria in the tie-down at the airport returned. Questions flooded my mind: How had the car gotten damaged? Why hadn't Hy returned it himself? Who had? I didn't speculate on the answers, merely turned my attention to a systematic search.
Nothing in the glove compartment but the owner's manual. Nothing in the ashtray. A couple of Styrofoam cups that had contained coffee on the passenger's side floor. Some loose change caught in the crack between the seat back and bottom. And shoved down beside the seat, a map. I pulled it out and unfolded it.
It was a Triple A road map of the area south of San Jose where Highway 101 cuts through Santa Clara and San Benito counties on the way to Salinas. A smaller area was circled in red felt-tip on the portion that had been folded out, and in the margin Hy's hand had written, "Ravenswood Road."
Ravenswood Road. Something familiar about that. Where …?
I closed my eyes, pictured the stretch of highway; I'd driven it any number of times over any number of years, en route from San Francisco to my parents' home in San Diego. You bypassed Morgan Hill and Gilroy on the freeway, and then the road narrowed and was open to cross traffic. There was that stretch—I couldn't remember whether it was before or after the turnoffs for Hollister and San Juan Bautista—where the north-and southbound lanes were divided by a big stand of eucalyptus. If you were driving north, you saw a turnout with boulders covered with graffiti on the left, and on the right a sign for Ravenswood Road. A scenic place, and isolated. Nothing much there that I could remember. Why …?
I folded the map and stuck it in my bag, then pulled the trunk release and went to look inside. Nothing. I went over the front seat and the backseat once more, then hurried to the office. Fry still stood behind his desk, staring dejectedly at his mounds of paperwork. I gave him my card, asked him to call me if he heard from the renter of the damaged car. As I ran to my MG, I tried to estimate the amount of time it would take to reach Ravenswood Road. It was quarter to three now—
Dammit! I'd forgotten about the partners' meeting at All Souls. Command appearance, and I was reasonably sure I'd be in big trouble if I failed to show. I'd have to return to the city for it, then double back, and brave San Jose in rush-hour traffic. At least it stayed light until eight or eight-thirty this time of year, so I'd be able to see whatever there was to see down there—if anything.
I pointed the MG toward the entrance to northbound 101.
When I hurried into the foyer of All Souls's big Victorian in Bernal Heights, I saw that the sliding doors to the parlor, where the partners held their weekly meetings, were closed. Ted Smalley, our office manager, looked up from his computer and said, "Aspice quod felis attraxit."
I sighed. "And that means …?"
"Look what the cat dragged in."
During the past weekend Ted had come across a gem of a book by one Henry Beard entitled Latin for Even More Occasions. Ted, who is an odd combination of Renaissance man and efficiency expert, read and memorized the entire volume and was now planning to search the stores for all the other Beard titles, as well as seriously considering signing up for a refresher course in the dead—well, apparently not so dead—language. Recently I'd been worried about him because he'd seemed depressed—not an unusual emotional state for a gay person who had lost at least a dozen friends to AIDS during the past year—and I welcomed this improvement in his spirits. But if he was going to greet me every morning with such expressions as Expergiscere et coffeam olface (Wake up and smell the coffee), I wasn't altogether certain how long I could endure this bizarre new enthusiasm.
I motioned at the closed doors. "I take it they're annoyed with me for being late."
"Should I go in?"
"Hank said they'd send for you. If you ever showed up," He went back to his computer.
Terrific, I thought. The summons to the meeting had sounded ominous from the first, and now I was out of favor for being late. Bad initial impression, and if I went in there preoccupied with Hy's situation, I was likely to compound it. What I needed was to put Hy out of my mind for the moment. Perhaps some diverting conversation—and not in Latin— would help.
Instead of going up to my office, I went down the hall to the cubbyhole under the stairs that belonged to my assistant, Rae Kelleher. She sat at her desk, one foot tucked up in the chair, the other scuffing rhythmically against the floor as she spoke on the phone. I squeezed past her and curled in the armchair—my former ratty armchair that she'd slipcovered in blue and white—and waited while she finished a conversation relating to one of the background investigations she was working. The office, a converted closet that the building's former owner had the gall to call a den, was overly warm and stuffy; I glanced at the ficus plant Rae nurtured under an ultraviolet bulb and saw its leaves were dusty and drooping from lack of water. Rae herself seemed similarly uncared for; her curly auburn hair needed washing, and her jeans and sweater looked as if she'd slept in them. It didn't surprise me; she'd had a big disappointment the week before. Her current love, jewelry chain owner Willie Whelan, had demanded she sign a prenuptial agreement before he'd present her with a diamond engagement ring, and Rae had flown into a rage at his remarks on her inability to wisely handle her own finances. Since then she'd handled her hurt with alternating fits of fury and dejection. This must be a dejected period, because when she hung up the phone and swiveled toward me, I saw her eyes were red.
"You all right?" I asked.
"Oh …" She waggled an outstretched hand from side to side.
"Another fight with Willie?"
- On Sale
- May 30, 2009
- Page Count
- 387 pages
- Grand Central Publishing