Mankiller (The Lt. Hastings Mysteries), page 1
A Lt. Hastings Mystery
Remembering all those
good years, this book
is dedicated to Addie Gilbert
Preview: Stalking Horse
“IN MY WHOLE LIFE,” Canelli said, “I never been inside the Stanford Court. Not once.” He pulled our cruiser into the Stanford Court’s curbside passenger zone, and watched a uniformed doorman ceremoniously approaching a Rolls that preceded us. Canelli’s eyes were round and somber, staring first at the doorman, then at the high-fashion occupants of the Rolls and finally at the hotel’s impressively understated entryway. At age twenty-seven, with a full, swarthy moon face, a hulking, suety body and a perpetually bemused manner, Canelli existed in a state of permanently perplexed innocence. For Canelli, every new experience was a source of wonder, and usually the subject of a long, rambling commentary. When I’d chosen him for my squad, taking him out of uniform, some of my superiors thought I’d made a mistake. They’d been wrong. Precisely because he didn’t look like a cop, or act like a cop or think like a cop, Canelli often succeeded where other detectives failed.
“Have you ever, Lieutenant?” Canelli asked. “Been inside, I mean.”
“Once or twice,” I answered, at the same time swinging my door open. I’d decided to spare the doorman the pain of attending a police vehicle, even though it was unmarked. “Thanks, Canelli. I’ll check with you in the morning. Take the car home, why don’t you?”
“Well, Jeeze, thanks, Lieutenant. I’m a whole lot closer to home than to the Hall. So maybe I will, then. Take the car home, I mean. Thanks.”
I said goodnight, and walked quickly beside the long, reflecting pool that led to the Stanford Court’s lobby. Behind the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling glass walls, I saw Ann and her father sitting side by side on a tufted velvet love seat. As the glass door slid smoothly open before me, I saw Ann’s father glance impatiently at his watch. The time was seven-thirty. I was a half hour late.
As I saw Ann get to her feet, smiling, I suddenly realized how much I’d been dreading the next few hours. Wearing a gold brocade dress and a single strand of pearls, holding a small embroidered evening bag, she looked like a beautifully poised stranger. During the year we’d been together, I’d never seen the brocade gown, or the evening bag, or the pearls.
I’d never seen her father, either. He was a small, wiry-looking man in his vigorous middle sixties. His body was slim, but his face was improbably round and ruddy, with rosy cheeks, lively eyes and a fringe of impeccably trimmed gray beard. Except for a pair of stylish silver-and-Lucite glasses, the face somehow recalled one of Disney’s seven dwarfs. His suit was a conservative pin stripe, but a paisley-printed red silk tie struck an independent note. Except for tufts of gray hair over the ears, his head was totally bald.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, speaking to Ann. “I just couldn’t get away. Something—came up.” I stopped a single step short of Ann, momentarily uncertain whether this was the time or the place to kiss her. Solving my problem, she took the last step and kissed me on the lips. It was a brief, businesslike kiss, exactly right.
“Dad,” she said, turning to her father with her arm linked through mine, “this is Frank Hastings. Frank, this is my father, Clyde Briscoe.”
His small hand was muscular, his grip firm but not aggressive. “The name is Clyde,” he said. “Just plain Clyde. Come on. I’ve got a table reserved.” He turned and led the way through the lobby to a door marked The West Room. He walked with a sprightly, bouncy stride that didn’t quite conceal a slight limp. As we walked behind him, I put my arm around Ann’s waist, hugged her quickly, then self-consciously released her as a maitre d’ stepped forward, bowing over the three menus he held ceremoniously before him.
“It’s been some time, Mr. Briscoe,” the maitre d’ murmured, speaking with an accent that could have been French. “It’s a pleasure, sir.”
“Thank you,” Clyde Briscoe said briskly, exchanging nods with the maitre d’. “Paul, isn’t it?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Clyde glanced pointedly toward the dining room, signifying that the pleasantries were over. Instantly picking up the cue, Pierre turned and led us toward a window table set for three. Beyond the window, the lights of San Francisco’s skyline looked like countless multicolored jewels scattered across the black velvet of the night sky.
“What’re we drinking?” Clyde asked, settling himself across the table from me, with Ann between us. Ann asked for a martini and Clyde decided on a bourbon-and-water. When I ordered plain tonic water, Clyde’s quick glance appraised me as he asked:
“You’re not a drinking man, Frank?”
“Not any more,” I answered. Then, meeting his eyes, I decided to add: “I used to drink—too much. So I had to quit.”
He studied me for a long, shrewd moment before he said, “You’re a person with willpower, then.”
I shrugged. “That depends on what you mean by willpower. For years, I drank too much. It finally got to the point where I had to choose between working and drinking.” As I said it, I watched him covertly, looking for a reaction. I saw only a momentary flicker in his shrewd gray eyes. He would think about what I’d said, then pick his time to probe deeper. Meanwhile, speaking crisply, he began the inevitable questions:
“Ann tells me you’re a detective.”
I nodded. “That’s right.”
“Homicide. I’m a lieutenant.” Watching him nod, I realized that he’d been anticipating the answer. Ann, of course, had told him about me.
“You played professional football, too.”
“I played three seasons for the Lions.”
“I don’t follow football. Is that Detroit?”
“Yes, it is.”
He waited while a blonde waitress brought our drinks, smiled politely all around and left us with a pleasant nod and a graceful switch of hip and thigh. Admiringly, Clyde watched the waitress walk away from us, his gaze fixed frankly on the provocative movement of her buttocks. Then, raising his glass, he toasted: “Here’s to the two of you. You’re a good-looking couple. A better-looking couple, I suspect, than you might realize.”
Over her glass, Ann smiled at him before she turned to me, playfully explaining, “Dad’s a philosopher—or so he thinks. Except that he’s very cryptic about it.”
To keep the conversation in balance, I asked, “What do you do, Clyde?”
“I’m a self-made millionaire,” he said, speaking with bright, straightforward self-satisfaction. “In fact, what with inflation, I’m a multimillionaire. Most of my life, though, I didn’t amount to a damn thing. Or, at least, so most people thought—including my wife.” As he said it, he glanced quickly at Ann, measuring her reaction. Except for an almost imperceptible tightening of her mouth, warning her father not to press his luck, she didn’t respond. To myself, I smiled. I knew that look of subtle, stubborn warning.
“I started out thinking I was an artist,” he continued. “And I was pretty good, too. I was a good draft
“By that time”—he glanced again at Ann—“by that time, I was married—to one of the taste-makers, in fact. And we had a child. And suddenly I wasn’t selling anything. I’d gone out of vogue, you see. To make ends meet, I started making things out of plastic—which I knew something about. I eventually started making small boats. But, unfortunately, the plastics available weren’t up to the job. They couldn’t be laminated in large enough pieces, because the cure was too quick. So the business folded—and so did I.”
For a moment he paused, briefly looking off across the opulent candlelit dining room. A shadow of sadness appeared in his eyes; his voice dropped to a lower, more somber note as he continued: “As the years went by, I became accustomed to thinking of myself as a failure, I’m afraid. My wife, meanwhile, met a stockbroker, and decided to make a change for the better.” Once more he looked at Ann, mutely challenging her to contest the bitterness of his memories. This time, her eyes fell before his. I couldn’t hear her sigh, but I felt it.
With the hardest part of his story behind him, Clyde’s eyes brightened again. His voice quickened as he said, “We were divorced in 1956, when Ann started college. I drifted around the world for a while after that. I’d decided to go back to painting, which was just another way of feeling sorry for myself. But then”—he was smiling now, remembering—“then I got my million-dollar idea. I was back in the plastic business, working for wages—and still feeling pretty sorry for myself. I got together with a chemist, and we figured out how to make a catalyst that would make fiberglass behave on long-radius laminates. We formed our own company, to make the catalyst. The first year, we grossed a million dollars. Five years later, a conglomerate bought us out, after accepting a very generous licensing agreement. So—” He spread his hands cheerfully. “I was rich. Filthily, wonderfully rich.” He drank half his bourbon-and-water, his shrewd gray eyes looking at me over the rim of the glass.
“That’s my story,” he said, setting the glass down decisively on the table and shifting in his chair to face me squarely. “What’s yours, Frank?”
Deliberately, I matched his bit of business, drinking from my own glass and setting it down firmly, all the while holding his eyes. If he knew a few tricks, so did I.
“My story isn’t as long as yours,” I began. “And, so far at least, it doesn’t have the—” I hesitated, searching for the phrase. “It doesn’t have the spectacular ending. I grew up here, in San Francisco. I played football in high school, and when I graduated I got a football scholarship to Stanford. I studied just enough to get a degree, no more. I don’t think I learned much. But when I graduated, I got drafted by the Lions. So I went to Detroit, and played three seasons as a second-string halfback. I had three knee operations, and the third one finished me. At the end of the first season, I met a woman named Carolyn Bates. She was good-looking, and her father was rich. We made a beautiful couple, according to the society columns. So we decided to get married. But then my knees gave out, and I found myself living in a fancy house with no money coming in. My wife didn’t worry about it, because she had her own money. But I worried—a lot. So I made the mistake of going to work for my father-in-law. I was supposed to do PR. Which, translated, meant entertaining VIPs. Before I knew it—before I realized how unhappy I’d become—I was drinking too much. At first, I drank in the line of duty, entertaining the customers. Then I started drinking on my own time. Once in a while—” I paused, stole a look at Ann. “Once in a while, I was given to understand that a VIP wanted a girl for the night, and that I was expected to arrange it. Which translated, I finally figured out, to pimping. So, after a few years, it all blew up. Everything. First it was my marriage. Then, naturally, it was my job. Finally, I—I just left town. I came back to San Francisco with my tail between my legs. An old friend got me into the police academy. I was the oldest rookie in the class, and without my athletic background I wouldn’t’ve survived the training. But I did survive, after a fashion. I quit drinking—eventually. I got my shield and I started climbing the ladder. So here I am.” I forced a smile, raising my glass to him. “Here I am, having dinner with a self-made millionaire.”
“What about children?” he asked quietly, holding my gaze.
“I have two. The girl is seventeen. The boy is almost fifteen. They live in Detroit. I see them once a year.” As I said it, I dropped my voice to a hard note of finality. About the children, I wouldn’t say any more. Catching the cue, he said:
“That’s your past. What’s the future?” Asking the question, he moved his eyes toward Ann, then back to me. To each of us, his meaning was clear. He was a father inquiring after my intentions concerning his daughter.
I finished my tonic water, and took a moment to study the impression left by the glass on the gleaming white damask tablecloth. Finally I drew a long, deliberate breath, raised my eyes to meet his squarely, and said, “Frankly, I’ve just about now come to terms with the past, after being divorced for twelve years. I don’t know whether—” I hesitated, searching for the right phrase. “I don’t know whether I’m ready to face up to the future, if you want the truth.”
As I said it, the wine steward appeared, followed a discreet moment later by our waiter. The break couldn’t have been better timed, and during the rest of the meal we talked about Clyde’s adventures, beginning with his first million and ending with his recent marriage to an astrologist half his age.
ANN PULLED INTO MY driveway, turned off the engine and switched off the headlights. For a moment she sat staring straight ahead, both hands gripping the steering wheel. Her hands were small, her fingers short. I’d always thought her hands expressed her perfectly: small but capable, moving with no pretense or affectation.
Except for an exchange of brief, anecdotal remarks about her father, we’d said very little during the drive from the Stanford Court. Drawing closer to my apartment, our silences had lengthened uncomfortably until, now, I felt almost awkward as I asked, “Why don’t you come in? It’s still early.”
For a moment she didn’t reply, still staring straight ahead. I saw her hand tighten on the wheel. Then, lifting her chin, she cleared her throat.
I knew that mannerism. I recognized the hardening around her mouth, and the purposeful narrowing of her eyes.
She was angry with me. Hurt and angry. I should have sensed it earlier—should have realized that her long aloof silences during dinner meant more than merely polite boredom, listening to her father’s stories.
“When are you going to face the future, Frank?” She spoke softly—regretfully, almost. But, still, purposefully.
Hearing her say it, I felt a sudden sense of foreboding mixed with a kind of dull, dogged sense of betrayal. Without ever having expressed it in words, we’d mutually agreed that the present was all we could handle. If the present was right, we’d once said, pillow-talking, then the future would take care of itself. It was as close as we’d ever come to discussing our future—about living together, or getting married. Ann had. been divorced for two years. She had two sons, one eleven, the other seventeen. Her ex-husband was a society psychiatrist named Victor Haywood, who affected Gucci accessories, a turbo Porsche and a luxuriant hair transplant. During their marriage, Haywood had been hard on her, systematically slashing away at her sense of self-esteem. After their divorce, his attacks had become more sadistic, more lethal. Using his head-doctor’s tricks, he’d flayed
So Ann wasn’t ready to make another commitment. She was still too vulnerable—too scarred, too unsure of herself.
And so was I.
I let the silence lengthen before I replied. Matching the soft-spoken, somber note in her voice I said, “It’s not just ‘me.’ It’s ‘we,’ really.”
She didn’t reply. After a moment, I decided to try a lighter note: “Your father’s a nice guy. I like him. But I think he was doing a little matchmaking tonight. Without really knowing the situation.”
She released her grip on the steering wheel and twisted in the seat to face me fully. Her mouth was still set, her eyes still uncompromising as she said, “What situation is that?”
I sighed—more sharply and impatiently than I’d intended. “You know what I mean.”
“Tell me.” Her voice could have been a stranger’s. And her eyes, too. “Tell me what you mean, Frank.”
“Oh, Jesus—” I lifted my hand in a gesture of sharp, futile protest. “Come on—lighten up, as the kids say.” I reached across her, unlatching the driver’s door. “Let’s go inside. What’s the point of talking about it in the car, anyhow?” With the door unlatched, I rested my hand on her upper thigh, drawing her subtly toward me. It wasn’t a time for words. It was a time for holding her, stroking her, kissing her. It was a time for me to be tender, and for her to come close.
But, instead, she moved against the pressure of my hand.
“Listen, Ann.” I took my hand away. “I’ve had a hard day, to use a cliché. I’m tired, and it’s late. And what’s more, you’re tired, too. So let’s go inside and—”
“That’s the trouble with us, you know? Instead of talking about things when we’re together—really talking about things—we just get into bed and start making love. And pretty soon, everything seems all right. Except that, really, nothing’s changed. We feel better, but nothing’s solved. Or rather, we feel—” She paused, groping. “We feel released.”
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