Good morning! she sang out as she pushed through the glass office doors. Grace Hart looked up with a slightly nervous smile.
Good morning, Miss Holt. Did you have a nice weekend?
Grace, I wish everyone in the world could have had as nice a weekend as I just did, her employer answered with a smile. Is Mildred in? Grace nodded and Laura saluted her cheerfully, then rapped briskly on Mildreds door and entered without waiting.
Good morning, good morning, good morning! she sang out as the older woman looked up from the depths of the purse she was plumbing.
Well, hello, kiddo, Mildred said with a wide grin. And how was your weekend, may I ask?
You may. You may, indeed. But first, Laura opened her large shoulder bag and withdrew a small, clear plastic box. She laid it on the desk in front of her associate.
Oh, Miss Holt! An orchid! For me?
Do you see anyone else sitting at that desk? Laura responded pertly. Of course its for you. Weird urge to see a wildebeest, my foot! You, you you big faker, you!
I take it everything went well?
Youre getting orchids instead of dead rats and you have to ask?
Oh, just making conversation, the older woman said with a grin. She picked up the box and removed the orchid. I just love orchids, she said, cradling the delicate blossom in her hand.
Well, you deserve an ocean of them for engineering that little surprise for me, but this was the best I could do on short notice, Laura told her, leaning forward to help secure the bloom to Mildreds sweater.
So? Do I get the gory details or are you gonna play coy with me? Mildred demanded.
Tell you what, Laura told her, a smile playing across her features, bring a couple cups of coffee into my office and well blow an hour or so on gossip this morning. What do you say?
I say get your caboose in gear, kid! Im right behind you!
Laughing, Laura swept out the door, headed for her own office.
She couldnt remember the last time shed felt this
good, and on a Monday, no less. It was going to be a fine day.
She could tell.
The second hand on the clock next to the door hadnt made it halfway around the face, but it felt like an hour since hed sat down in his chair. He couldnt just sit there like a lump, he had to say something. But what?
Call me by whatever name best suits your purpose, Detective, he managed finally. Im sure Ive answered to worse.
Jarvis crossed his legs and leaned back comfortably. All right then, Ill settle for Dr. Harry Chalmers. You did go by that name at one time, didnt you?
Rising to that bait was, of course, out of the question. He waited.
It was in Canada. You were in college. St. Somethingorother, I dont have the name written down. And you worked for Therapy Associates, Ltd. there, too. Funny. I never pegged you for the Dr. Freud type. You always seemed more action-oriented. But wonders will never cease and I should stop blathering and get to it, shouldnt I? Jarvis smiled disingenuously.
Please, do, Detective, he heard himself say, calmly. Ive never been blackmailed by such a friendly assailant before. Im finding it fascinating, if not altogether pleasant.
Blackmail? Jarvis blinked, his cheerful expression slipping slightly, before being slammed rigidly back into place. Whatever would make you think a thing like that?
Oh, I dont know, he said with forced calm. General attitude, I suppose. When Im confronted by someone who has a handle on, shall we say, sensitive material, for want of a better term, but who ostensibly refuses to use it against me, I tend to look for the fist hidden inside the silk glove. Im funny that way.
No fists here, Jarvis said, holding up his hands, fingers splayed dramatically. Wouldnt dream of it. Just a friendly chat, thats all. About this and that. Just came in to shoot the breeze.
Do you always show your credentials to the staff and insist that the matter cant wait when you want to shoot the breeze, Detective?
You know what it is with red tape. Anything to make the day go smoother, eh? The sharks smile was showing again. So tell me, are you as good as your reputation?
Ah yes, I seem to recall you telling me once that you were a family man. Kiddie trouble at home, Detective?
Not at all, not at all. My kiddies are in junior high and high school and doing just fine, thanks. But Ill keep you in mind, just in case.
Then why the sudden interest in my reputation?
Oh, just wondering. Its easy to fabricate reputations and other things.
Theres nothing fabricated about my credentials, Detective, as Im sure you must have discovered long before darkening my door.
Jarvis clasped both hands behind his head and leaned back, studying the acoustical tiles above him as he recited, Dr. Harry Chalmers, a/k/a Dr. Harrison Cathcart. Brilliant clinician and renowned expert on the electively mute. One of the top five therapists working in that field, maybe the best of the bunch. Multiple Lancet publications as a mere Ph.D. candidate. Graduated Summa Cum Laude, October, 198
Im well aware of my curriculum vitae, Detective. You have someone who wont talk, is that it?
Not really, no. It isnt your current reputation that interests me, Im afraid. Its your former reputation.
And which former reputation would that be, pray tell?
Im sensing hostility here. Jarvis glanced at him with a slight smile.
No, what youre sensing is that Im at the end of my patience. He surged to his feet, hands balled into fists, planted firmly on his desktop. If this were simple blackmail, you wouldnt be here. Or if you were, youd have gotten down to business by now. If this were blackmail, and youd done any research on me at all, you wouldnt be here at all. Youd be in Lauras office, harassing her. You have no interest in blackmail. Or my name. Or my reputation. And I have a meeting to attend and patients to see and no time for this Columbo crap. Can we please cut to the chase here? Whatever it is you want, just spit it out. Im not playing 20 questions anymore. Is that quite clear, Detective?"
Are you this belligerent with your patients, doctor?
Only the ones who waste my time.
Fine, then I wont waste your time. Jarvis sat forward on his chair. The sharks smile was gone and his eyes were intense. Youre right, of course. I have no intention of blackmailing you. I could. I could take what I know to the state licensing board and have Miss Holts PI license revoked in a New York minute. I could probably have you up on a number of charges and then extradited or deported. But what purpose would that serve?
He stood motionless for a moment, then slowly sank down in his seat, his eyes never leaving Jarvis face.
Miss Holt may be a fraud in some respects, Jarvis continued, but if she is the brains behind Remington Steele, as Im beginning to believe she is, shes good. Very good. And, with a few notable exceptions, she doesnt go out of her way to get in my way, which, from a police perspective, is even better. Mildreds a bit of an eager-beaver, but shes not so bad, once you get to know her. No, I see no purpose in shutting down Remington Steele Investigations. You can breath easy on that score.
Slowly, his fists unclenched. He even managed to get one hand wrapped around his coffee cup as Jarvis continued.
As for your own peccadilloes, well, I dont much care about what goes on in Acapulco or Greece or Italy. Let them worry about their own problems. Ive got bigger fish to fry right here in L.A. Which is why your reputation is of such interest.
And which reputation would that be?
A noted Canadian forensic psychologist set the worldwide mental health community on its ear a few years back when he produced a psychological profile of not one, but three separate serial murderers who were copycatting one anothers crimes during a high-profile, unsolved case. All the other experts had been convinced it was a single killer, but after the profile was developed, the three men involved were arrested, convicted and are now in prison serving consecutive life sentences.
Jarvis smiled again. Only, despite the fact that this well-known psychologist took the credit, there was a rumor floating around that the real work was done by a student who was working with him that semester. A little-known, but highly respected Ph.D. candidate. You see, I did my research. You were the one who actually produced those profiles, werent you?
I preferred not to have my name or face publicly associated with the case, Detective Jarvis. Im sure you can appreciate my motives.
Yeah, I guess I can. But you were good at it, werent you? Psychological profiling? You were damned good.
I was somewhat talented in the area, yes. But it was the wrong area for someone of my background to specialize in.
Are you still?
Am I still what? he said, noting that the boyish detective had suddenly jackknifed forward on his chair, the tendons in his neck standing out in agitation.
Are you still as good at it now as you were back then?
He picked up his coffee cup again and drew a long draught from
it. Now, at last, they were coming to the matter at hand. And
suddenly, he needed that jolt of caffeine worse than hed
ever needed one before.
Its not all the strikes that gets me, its that little dance he does at the end. No matter how hard I try to keep a straight face
I take it the Dragon Ladies dont approve? Laura arched one eyebrow at her associate while they shared gossip, coffee and Mildreds stash of caramel cookies.
Approve? I think they wish he were a woman so he could join the team. The way he picks up splits ! Honey, if I werent so interested personally, Id be a little jealous myself. The man is amazing!
Laura laughed at the tone of Mildreds voice. Mildred, Id say you were a tad more than personally interested in your bowling buddy. Id say you were completely gone on the guy.
You may say whatever you like, Mildred informed her archly. I, however, maintain my emotional distance, my romantic independence, my my She slumped suddenly and matched grins with the slender woman across the room. O.k., so Im halfway to next week over him. But for Gods sake, dont tell him that!
Uh-oh, Laura said with a small smirk, is that a bit of game-playing Im detecting? Now, Mildred, as youve always told me
Dont! The older woman held up one hand with a laugh. I eat enough of my own words. Stop force-feeding me! Besides, Im not really game-playing. Its just
What? Laura prompted, as small worry-line etching itself between her brows.
Oh, I dont know exactly. I just get the feeling that hes afraid of being I, dont know, not rushed, but crowded. Like, every so often he just pulls back, if that makes any sense.
Perfect sense, Laura said, a rush of memories pouring through her brain. But dont play hard-to-get too long. I know that lesson from harsh experience. And I want you and Joe to work. I really, really do!
Mildreds grin widened. I knew misery loved company. I didnt know bliss insisted on it as well.
Oh, it does, it does! The two woman laughed together for a moment, but were interrupted by the buzz of the intercom.
Miss Holt? Grace Harts voice floated out of the speaker. Laura depressed the switch.
What is it, Grace?
Theres a Mrs. Smythe her to see you.
Thank you, Grace. Ill be out in a moment. She exchanged glances with Mildred.
Ill get my pad, hon, Mildred said, getting to her feet. Back in a flash. Smythe huh? Sounds like an alias to me! She flashed another grin at the younger woman and bustled out the side door towards her own office.
Laura cleared the cookie crumbs from her desk and straightened a slightly disordered pile of files and other paperwork. She glanced around the rest of the office and sighed. This was the real working space of the agency, as Mildred named it, and it always looked just a bit cluttered and overcrowded. But Mr. Steeles office was so bare, almost barren, without its former occupant that she had long ago given up seeing clients there. She wondered briefly how long it would be before she would be using that room again, then pushed the thought far from her conscious mind and strode briskly toward the door leading to the reception area.
Mrs. Smythe? A tall woman with casual salt-and-pepper curls framing a strong, but attractive face rose to her feet. Laura noted the elegantly understated suit, the handbag that cost more than Lauras whole wardrobe and the erect, self-assured bearing the woman assumed as she crossed the reception area towards Lauras office.
She looks like shes walking down a runway, Laura thought to herself, then winced. That sort of snap judgement should be beyond her by now, but an innate sense of competitiveness seemed to rear its ugly head in the presence of any sleek, self-assured woman. She felt a forced smile spread across her face.
Please come in, she murmured and stepped aside to let Mrs. Smythe pass.
She had just settled in behind her desk when the other door opened and Mildred came back in, pad in hand. Their new client gave Mildred and her orchid a pointed glance.
Could we possibly dispense with your secretarys services, Miss Holt?
This is my associate, Mildred Krebbs, Laura said with some asperity. Shes a qualified investigator and Im afraid I cant dispense with her at all. What can we do for you, Mrs. Smythe?
Its about my daughter, Jessica, the woman said, not visibly affected by Lauras sharp tone. Still, observed close up, a network of fine lines radiated out from the corners of her eyes, and even the near-professional make-up job couldnt hide the dark shadows underneath those eyes, or the harsh lines bracketing her wide mouth. Close up, the mask of grief was only too evident.
What happened to her? Laura asked softly.
She was murdered, Mrs. Smythe said, coolly matter-of-fact, and I want you to find out why. And by whom. She snapped open her purse, but instead of a photograph, she took out a small, half-crushed packet of cigarettes. Do you mind? she said, brandishing a butane lighter. Laura saw Mildred flinch, and flashed her a warning glance. She opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small porcelain ashtray. Mrs. Smythe took it with a small smile.
What can you tell us about your daughters death? Laura asked gently when her client was safely enveloped in a soft gray cloud.
Only what little I know. That she was strangled and then dismembered and then discarded. In a number of different commercial garbage dumpsters in various areas of Los Angles. Thats all I know and thats all the police know. Im beginning to suspect its really all they want to know. So I came here. I was hoping youd be able to find out more.
Despite her manner of outward calm, the firm control over her voice had slipped a little, Laura noted. The voice sounded slightly harsh, especially when the narrative touched on the police. The woman was nowhere near as in control as she appeared.
All right, then what can you tell me about your daughter herself?
What do you want to know? Jessica was in her late 20s. She was smart, athletic, attractive and successful. Shed gone back to school after a brief marriage ended in divorce and was just about to graduate as a paralegal. She worked out at a local womans gym, one of those trendy places with pink floral borders over the mirrors and baby-blue counterweights on the machines. She had been accepted for her first job after graduation, had moved up to a slightly better apartment than shed had before and she was happy with her life. And then she was dead. And Id like to know why.
I can understand that. What about her friends companions ? Laura said gently. Mrs. Smythe waved her cigarette in the air preemptorily.
You mean boyfriends, she said bluntly. That was one area where Jessica wasnt so successful. Her ex-husband, Justin Beecham, was worthless. He was going to be a lawyer. But it was all too much for the poor dear. So he was going to open a store. Only his business partner wrecked it for him. Then he was going to teach inner city basketball, of all things. But, just his luck, he got fired. As it turned out, the only thing he was really good at was taking drugs. So Jessica finally wised up and dumped him.
She took a long drag on her cigarette before continuing. It wasnt prolonged or terribly acrimonious. He whined for awhile, even made noises about having her pay him alimony. But she wasnt listening to any of that nonsense and he finally accepted the inevitable and faded quietly away, never to be heard from again. As for boyfriends, there was someone named Jeff that she mentioned a time or two after the divorce, but it didnt work out. Something about a temper. Jessica was too smart to put up with a two-bit bully. The cigarette was stamped out in the porcelain tray with emphasis.
Other than that, theres nothing I can tell you about. Nothing she ever mentioned. If she were seeing someone new, of course she might not tell me all the details, or even at all. But I dont think she was seeing anyone. She dropped by on the weekends too often. She wouldnt have done that if shed been seeing anyone, would she?
I supposed that makes a certain amount of sense, Laura said. What about your daughters other friends, Mrs. Smythe? Was there anyone in particular who might know what Jessica had been doing in the months leading to her death?
Her murder, Miss Holt, her murder. And for Gods sake, call me Julia. Mrs. Smythe makes me feel like a character in a bad play. As far as I know, since she moved to L.A. to be closer to her classes, she hadnt bothered with any of her old friends from home. We lived in Simi Valley, and I suppose Jessica thought shed outgrown that crowd. She was very enthusiastic about social causes and things of that nature. She felt we were too repressed as a community. So if she had friends, they were new friends and I didnt get to meet them.
Laura considered carefully. The more questions asked, the more tense Julia Smythe was growing. Shed shaken another cigarette out of the pack, but it had taken her three tries to light it and the cords and tendons were standing out on the backs of her hands by the time she did so.
I think what we need now is a chance to look at Jessicas old apartment, maybe talk to some of her neighbors, Laura said briskly. And well need to know what health club she belonged to. If you have a copy of the police report, Id like to see that as well. If not, we can get one from the police. No problem. She tried to give the older woman an encouraging smile, but the bland, businesslike face never slipped an inch.
Im afraid you wont be able to look at Jessicas apartment, Miss Holt. Its probably already been rented out. Her neighbors may or may not still live there. I dont really know. The same at her health club. Things change so fast these days, everywhere. You never know.
Im not certain I understand Mrs.Julia, Laura said, exchanging confused glances with Mildred.
My daughter was murdered over five months ago, Miss Holt, Julia Smythe said in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone. And Im beginning to think that not only wont the person responsible be caught, but that he didnt stop with Jessica.
She opened her purse and drew out a newspaper clipping, handing it across to Laura. It was from that mornings newspaper. The headline read, Sanitation Stir Scented. The story underneath told of a publicly-disavowed undercurrent of employee unrest in the sanitation department. Widespread bouts of flu seemed to be going around among employees, even though health department officials admitted that the flu season hadnt even begun. And, as the union had just signed a multi-year contract, the workers didnt seem to be staying home over a financial issue.
The only thing the newspaper had been able to glean, from an undisclosed source, was that sanitation workers were reacting out of a sense of disquiet and fear.
Laura handed the clipping wordlessly to Mildred and looked at her client for a long silent moment. You think she began.
I think someone needs to find this monster. And soon,
Julia Smythe said flatly. Before someone elses daughter
ends up in a dumpster.
He scrubbed the tub yet again as the chant rolled around in his head. Stay or go, stay or go, what to do, stay or go?
It should be a simple decision, really. But it wasnt. He should go. Hed been wrong again. It wasnt safe.
But it seemed so right. The area seemed so right. How could he leave? And why should he leave? To be honest, had he really needed to leave all the other places? Hed been careful. Endlessly careful. There should be no notice taken. There had been no sign that notice had been taken. In fact, in buildings like this one, the smart thing was to take no notice of anything, ever. Thats why he picked these places, distasteful as they were. They were safe. Why go to all the trouble to find a safe place and then leave it? Wasnt it still safe? Wasnt he?
Stay or go, stay or go? The water swirled down the drain again, clear and pure and blameless. He listened to its soft hiss. The water said stay. He would listen to the water. He would stay.
He only hoped the water was right.
The office door had closed on Jarvis, he was already late for his 9:30 meeting with John and still he sat and stared into space, lost in thought and speculation.
It wasnt what Jarvis had told him that had him confused. It was the odd, half-familiar feeling he was experiencing as a result. A rush of adrenaline spilling from nerve ending to nerve ending, a cross between interest, intrigue and excitement. There was no question that he would do what hed been asked to do, under the conditions specified. He would be only too glad to do it, if the adrenaline rush meant anything at all. There was only one hitch in the whole matter.
What was he going to tell Laura?