Authors: Joseph Hansen
For Bill Harding
HEN LAST HE HAD
noticed, nothing was out here but bare hills above an empty beach. He was jolted by how much time must have passed—not years but decades. Now expensive ranch houses of distressed brick sprawled under low shake roofs on wide lots back of white rail fences. Trees had grown tall, mostly lacy eucalyptus, but even an occasional wind-bent cypress. The streets curved with the curves of the hills. Sometimes he glimpsed the blue water of backyard swimming pools where no one swam because the wind off the sea was cold though the sun shone in a clear blue sky.
He got lost among the empty suburban morning streets but at last he found Sandpiper Lane and a mailbox with the number 171, and parked the Triumph by a little palm whose hairy fans rattled in the wind. He climbed out of the car and the wind blew in his ears. When it stopped for breath, he could hear the distant surf. He heard no nearby sounds, human sounds. Even if you lived out here, you had to go to work, to school. If a wife kept at home by young children sat drinking coffee and watching television in a kitchen, her windows were closed, the sound didn’t reach the street.
The mailbox at 171 needed a new coat of black paint. Rust showed at the welds. Leaves and litter strewed the driveway that was a half-circle. They crunched under his soles. He stepped over newspapers, thick, held folded by loops of grubby cotton string, print faded by sunlight, paper turning color from the weather.
SEARCH FIVE STATES FOR MASS MURDERER
a headline read.
AZRAEL REPORTED IN MEXICO, CANADA
read another. He peered through small panes of dusty glass in garage doors. No cars were parked inside.
A dozen dry shades of red and brown, eucalyptus leaves lay heaped at the foot of the front door. The door was recessed, its yellow enamel cracked and, near the bottom, peeling, curling back on itself. The door must have looked cheerful once. It looked sad now. Dave pushed a bell button. Chimes went off inside the house. He waited but no one came. He rang the chimes again, inhaling the dark insistent eucalyptus smell. He rubbed his nose. He used a tarnished brass knocker at eye level in the middle of the door. Its rattle raised only echoes. Rubber squealed in the street. He turned. A new little red pickup truck swung in at the driveway of a house across the street. From the bed of the truck, a surfboard flashed signals at the sun.
The truck rocked to a halt in front of the door of the house and a boy jumped out of the cab and ran for the door. All of him but his face was covered by a black wet-suit, red and yellow stripes down arms and legs. He hopped on one foot while he jingled keys and tried to get one into the door. Dave ran down the driveway of 171, holding up a hand, calling out to the boy to wait a minute. The boy flung a panicky look over his shoulder and disappeared into the house. The slam of the door was loud in the stillness of a moment’s drop in the wind.
Dave trotted across the street, up the drive, dodged the little red truck, and rang another set of door chimes. He panted. He was getting old. Running wasn’t natural to him anymore. From inside the house he heard a shout but couldn’t make out the words. Were they “Go away!” or “Come in!”? He waited. The apple-green enamel on this door was fresh and dustless, as if it had been laid on yesterday. He regarded it for two or three minutes, whistling softly between his teeth. Then the door opened.
“Sorry,” the boy said. He wore a red sweatshirt now and was tying the drawstring of a pair of red sweatpants. His hair was a blond mop. He was barefoot. “I had to get to the bathroom. You want them, across the street?”
“Westover,” Dave said, “Charles. Any idea where he’s gone? It looks as if it’s been a while.”
“What are you about?” the boy said. “All kinds of people keep coming. Once it was a marshal.”
“I’m about insurance,” Dave said. “Life insurance.” He watched the boy start to shut the door and said, “No, I don’t sell it. I investigate death claims.” He took out his wallet and handed the boy a card. The boy read it and looked startled. “Brandstetter,” he said, and smiled. “Hey, sure. I saw you on TV—Tom Snyder or somebody. You solve murders when the police can’t do it.”
“The police are busy,” Dave said. “I’m not busy. How long has the Westover house been empty?”
“A week, ten days.” He frowned. “Who’s murdered?”
“Maybe no one,” Dave said. “Maybe Serenity Westover.”
“Oh, wow.” Noon-blue sea light had been in the boy’s eyes. It clouded over. He stared at Dave, at Dave’s mouth, where the name had come from. He said numbly, “Serenity?”
“Do you know her?”
“We were in the same kindergarten, grade school, high school.” The boy looked past Dave, maybe at the house across the street. “We had our first date together. Sixth grade.” The wind blew cold, and that may have been what made him shiver. Or it may have been something else. “Jesus.” He said it softly to himself, then backed inside and told Dave to come in. Dave stepped in and the boy shut the door. “I’m freezing,” he said, and walked off. “You like some coffee? Some breakfast? I’m starved. I didn’t eat before I left this morning. God, that water was cold.” He was out of sight now, but Dave followed his voice. “There’s a storm down off Baja, and the surf is way up, but you get so numb all you do is fall off. And after while, anyway, all you can think of is how badly you have to pee, and that’s not easy in a wetsuit.” Dave found him in a spacious kitchen of waxed wood cabinets and waxed red brick under sloping beams. “I should have gone to school. I knew how it would be. I’ve tried it before in weather like this. I don’t learn very fast.” A circle of flame burned high under a red-orange teakettle. The boy scooped coffee beans into a grinder of the same color. The grinder whirred and rattled while the boy held his hand on it. When the motor quit whining, he looked at Dave. “How do you mean, ‘maybe’?”
“Her father claims she was one of the girls murdered at that ranch in the desert. The ones whose bodies they’ve been digging up. It’s been in the news.”
“Oh, wow,” the boy said again. “What makes him think that?”
There was a breakfast bar with neat bentwood stools that had cushions of natural linen. Dave sat on one of the stools, took an envelope out of his jacket pocket, and slipped from the envelope a smaller envelope that was soiled, rumpled, and addressed in a childlike hand in blue ball-point ink. “You want to look at this for me?”
The boy came to the bar, carrying the clear plastic part of the coffee grinder that held the pulverized beans. He looked at the envelope without touching it. He looked at Dave. Stricken. With a finger, Dave pushed the envelope closer to him. He said:
“Is that her writing?”
The boy nodded. He gave a sad little smile. “It was always like that, never got any better. I’ve got a lot of her letters. I don’t know why I keep them. She changed. She wasn’t the same anymore. The way she was acting, I didn’t want anything to do with her. She didn’t want anything to do with me.” He set down the container. The coffee smell that rose from it was dense and appetizing. He picked up the envelope and squinted at the blurry postmark. “Perez,” he said, and stared at Dave again.
“Go ahead,” Dave said, “open it. Take out what’s inside.” What was inside was a letter on dimestore writing paper in the same clumsy, childish hand, the same cheap ball point. Also a snapshot. The boy unfolded the letter and read aloud under his breath: “Dear Daddy. So you won’t worry about me, I want you to know that I am very happy, now. I have found someplace where I can be at peace…” He let the letter drop. He picked up the snapshot. “Oh, wow,” he said again, and looked at Dave with tears in his eyes. “She was there. Look. That’s her, standing right next to Azrael. Smiling. Oh, wow.”
“You’re sure?” Dave said.
“I saw her every day of my life almost,” he said, “from the time when we were babies. Of course I’m sure.”
“There are six girls in the photo,” Dave said. “You mean the dark, roundfaced one with the long straight hair?”
“That’s Serenity.” The kettle began rattling. The boy picked up the container of ground coffee and went back to the counter beside the burner deck. He dumped the ground coffee into a glass coffee maker, fitted its sections together, picked up the kettle by its handsome bentwood handle, poured the boiling water in, set the kettle down.
“There wasn’t much of a lens in that camera,” Dave said. “The image isn’t sharp. And she’s not so different from a hundred thousand other girls her age.”
The boy switched off the burner. “It’s her.” He got coffee mugs down from a cupboard, brought them to the breakfast bar, set them there. He picked up the grubby envelope again and peered at the postmark. “This was mailed almost two years ago. Just after she ran away.”
“And in two years,” Dave said, “she could have run away from Azrael, too, couldn’t she? That’s what makes Banner Insurance nervous about this claim. They’re going to be even more nervous when I report that the man who filed the claim has also run away. Why did Serenity run away—can you tell me?”
The boy winced at him. “Is this how you do your job? I mean—don’t you know anything about the Westovers?”
“That there were four of them, Charles, Anna, Serenity, and Lyle—father, mother, two children. I know their ages and that they live, or lived, across the street here. I have a telephone number that no one answers. I can’t find an office, so I assume Charles Westover used his home. He’s an attorney.”
“Used to be,” the boy said. “He got disbarred for bribing witnesses and went to jail for a year. That was when Serenity took off.”
“Disappointed in her father?” Dave said.
The boy laid strips of bacon in a frying pan. “She could never be that. It was her mother. Her mother divorced him and Serenity couldn’t forgive her for that and they fought all the time and finally Serenity left.” The boy opened a big coppertone refrigerator and put the bacon package back and brought out eggs. “No—she and her father were crazy about each other. This thing about bribing the witnesses and all that took about a year or something, and he was in deep trouble, you know? And he didn’t have time for her or anybody. He was trying to save himself, I suppose.” The boy broke eggs into a terra-cotta-color mixing bowl and put the shells down a disposal that gulped and shuddered. “We didn’t see him. He used to be friendly with my folks, he and Anna. But when this happened, he kept away. My dad didn’t judge him. He was a friend, all right? But Chass was ashamed I guess, or afraid or something, and we hardly saw him at all. I mean, he’d speak if you said hi when he was coming out of his driveway or something, but he wouldn’t drop over like before and he stopped going to the beach club and anything like that. Just holed up over there. And his wife was the same.”
“She went crazy, sort of. I mean, we were buddies—like brother and sister, if you want to put it like that. We played together all the time when we were little and it was just”—he was beating the eggs with a fork and he moved his shoulders in a shrug—“a companionship that went on, all right? I used to wonder if we were in love, sometimes. I could never answer that.” Butter sizzled in a frying pan, and he poured in the beaten eggs and set the bowl in the sink and stirred the eggs around over the burner-deck flame with the fork. “It just seemed like we’d always been together and so, maybe, we always would be. But then this rotten thing happened that her father did and she stopped coming around. I tried for a while to get her to. I mean, it was very”—he reached down plates from a cupboard—“I missed her, I was sad, I was lonesome, okay? But she began running around with beach bums and druggies from Venice, a whole crowd of freaks. She seemed to want to do every crazy thing they were doing. Drunk half the time, wandering around spaced out on God knows which kind of pills the rest of the time. Once, her mother went and found her living with some greasy weirdo that called himself a poet, in a ratty old dump, one room with a mattress on the floor. She wouldn’t leave for her mother, and her mother asked me to go along to try to get her to come home. She was passed out on reds, and I just picked her up and carried her out to the car.” He spooned the eggs out of the pan onto the waiting plates. He turned off the burners. He forked bacon onto the plates. He brought the plates to the breakfast bar and set them down. He gave a little bleak laugh at himself. “Hell, I forgot forks, I forgot napkins.” He got these from drawers. The forks were good Danish steel. The napkins were linen that matched the seatcovers of the stools. He sat on the stool beside Dave, then got off it and went for coffee and sugar, spoons, and cream in a squat carton. He sat on the stool again. “Then the trial came and he went to jail.”