/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Private Eyes

Jonathan Kellerman

Psychologist Dr Alex Delaware has always looked on Melissa Dickinson as one of his greatest triumphs. A terrified, tormented seven-year-old when she first appeared in his Los Angeles surgery, Melissa after two years seemed totally recovered. But nine years later Melissa contacts Alex again, anxious this time for her mother. As Alex recalls, weatlthy widow Gina Dickinson has problems of her own. For two decades she has hidden herself away from the eyes of the world – ever since a vicious acid attack destroyed the face of Hollywood actress Gina Prince. Then the reclusive Gina climbs into her car – and totally disappears. And as Alex and Detective Milo Sturgis lead the search for her, they find their quest taking them out of the here and now and into a grotesque, labyrinthine private history as violent and sinister as any bad dream… How well did Alex ever understand his star patient Melissa? How could he have 'cured' her when he never even guessed at the evil and hatred that formed her inheritance?

Jonathan Kellerman

Private Eyes

The sixth book in the Alex Delaware series, 1991

Special thanks to Beverly Lewis, whose sharp eye and soft voice make a big difference.

To Gerald Petievich, for an insider’s view- of lots of things.

And to Terri Turner, California Parole Department, for her efficiency and good cheer.

To my children,

who put everything in perspective

For all of us our own particular

creature lurks in ambush.

– HUGH WAPOLE

1

A therapist’s work is never over.

Which isn’t to say that patients don’t get better.

But the bond forged during locked-door three-quarter hours- the relationship that develops when private eyes peek into private lives- can achieve a certain immortality.

Some patients do leave and never return. Some never leave. A good many occupy an ambiguous space in the middle- throwing out occasional tendrils of reattachment during periods of pride or sorrow.

Predicting who’ll fall into which group is an iffy business, no more rational than Vegas or the stock market. After a few years in practice I stopped trying.

So I really wasn’t surprised when I came home after a July night-run and learned that Melissa Dickinson had left a message with my service.

First time I’d heard from her in… what? It had to be nearly a decade since she’d stopped coming to the office I once maintained in a cold-blooded high-rise on the east end of Beverly Hills.

One of my long-termers.

That alone would have made her stand out in my memory, but there had been so much more…

Child psychology’s an ideal job for those who like to feel heroic. Children tend to get better relatively quickly and to need less treatment than adults. Even at the height of my practice it was rare to schedule a patient for more than one session a week. But I started Melissa at three. Because of the extent of her problems. Her unique situation. After eight months we tapered to twice; at year’s anniversary, were down to one.

Finally, a month shy of two years, termination.

She left therapy a changed little girl; I allowed myself a bit of self-congratulation but knew better than to wallow in it. Because the family structure that had nurtured her problems had never been altered. Its surface hadn’t even been scratched.

Despite that, there’d been no reason to keep her in treatment against her will.

I’m nine years old, Dr. Delaware. I’m ready to handle things on my own.

I sent her out into the world, expecting to hear from her soon. Didn’t for several weeks, phoned her and was informed, in polite but firm nine-year-old tones, that she was just fine, thank you, would call me if she needed me.

Now she had.

A long time to be on hold.

Ten years would make her nineteen. Empty the memory banks and be prepared for a stranger.

I glanced at the phone number she’d left with the service.

An 818 area code. San Labrador exchange.

I went into the library, dug into my CLOSED files for a while, and finally found her chart.

Same prefix as her original home number, but the last four digits were different.

Change of number or had she left home? If she had, she hadn’t gone very far.

I checked the date of her last session. Nine years ago. A birth date in June. She’d turned eighteen a month ago.

I wondered what had changed about her. What was the same.

Wondered why I hadn’t heard from her sooner.

2

The phone was picked up after two rings.

“Hello?” Voice of a stranger, young, female.

“Melissa?”

“Yes?”

“This is Dr. Alex Delaware.”

“Oh. Hi! I didn’t… Thanks so much for calling back, Dr. Delaware. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you until tomorrow. I didn’t even know if you’d call back.”

“Why’s that?”

“Your listing in the phone boo- Excuse me. Hold on for one second, please.”

Hand over the phone. Muffled conversation.

A moment later she came back on. “There’s no office address for you in the phone book. No address at all. Just your name, no degree- I wasn’t even sure it was the same A. Delaware. So I didn’t know if you were still in practice. The answering service said you were but that you worked mostly with lawyers and judges.”

“That’s basically true-”

“Oh. Then I guess-”

“But I’m always available to former patients. And I’m glad you called. How are things, Melissa?”

“Things are good,” she said quickly. Clipped laugh. “Having said that, the logical question is why am I calling you after all these years, right? And the answer is that it’s not about me, Dr. Delaware. It’s Mother.”

“I see.”

“Not that anything terrible’s- Oh, darn, hold on.” Hand over the phone again. More background conversation. “I’m really sorry, Dr. Delaware, this just isn’t a good time to talk. Do you think I could come and… see you?”

“Sure. What’s a good time for you?”

“The sooner the better. I’m pretty free- school’s out. I graduated.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. It feels good to be out.”

“Bet it does.” I checked my book. “How about tomorrow at noon?”

“Noon would be great. I really appreciate this, Dr. Delaware.”

I gave her directions to my house. She thanked me and hung up before I could complete my goodbye.

Having learned much less than I usually do during a preappointment call.

A bright young woman. Articulate, tense. Holding back something?

Remembering the child she’d been, I found none of that surprising.

It’s Mother.

That opened up a realm of possibilities.

The most likely: She’d finally come to grips with her mother’s pathology- what it meant to her. Needed to put her feelings in focus, maybe get a referral for her mother.

So tomorrow’s visit would probably be a one-shot deal. And that would be it. For another nine years.

I closed the chart, comfortable with my powers of prediction.

I might as well have been playing the slots in Vegas. Or buying penny stocks on Wall Street.

***

I spent the next couple of hours on my latest project: a monograph for one of the psych journals on my experiences with a school full of children victimized by a sniper the previous autumn. The writing was more of an ordeal than I’d expected; the trick was to make the experience come alive within the confines of a scientific approach.

I stared down at draft number four- fifty-two pages of defiantly awkward prose- certain I’d never be able to inject any humanity into the morass of jargon, scholarly references, and footnotes I had no clear memory of creating.

At eleven-thirty I put my pen down and sat back, still unable to find the magic voice. My eyes fell on Melissa’s chart. I opened it and began reading.

October 18, 1978.

The fall of ’78. I remembered it as a hot and nasty one. With its filthy streets and septic air, Hollywood hadn’t worn its autumns well for a long time. I’d just given Grand Rounds at Western Pediatric Hospital and was itching to get back to the west side of town and the half a dozen appointments that made up the rest of my day.

I’d thought the lecture had gone well. Behavioral Approaches to Fear and Anxiety in Children. Facts and figures, transparencies and slides- in those days I’d thought all that quite impressive. An auditorium full of pediatricians, most of them private practitioners. An inquisitive, practical-minded bunch, hungry for what worked, with little patience for academic nit-picking.

I fielded questions for a quarter of an hour and was on my way out of the lecture hall when a young woman stopped me. I recognized her as one of the frequent questioners, thought I’d seen her somewhere else as well.

“Dr. Delaware? Eileen Wagner.”

She had a pleasant full face under cropped chestnut hair. Good features, bottom-heavy figure, a slight squint. Her white blouse was mannish and buttoned to the neck; her skirt, knee-length tweed over sensible shoes. She carried a black Gladstone bag that looked brand-new. I remembered where I’d seen her before: last year’s House Staff Roster. Third-year resident. M.D. from one of the Ivy League schools.

I said, “Dr. Wagner.”

We shook hands. Hers was soft and stubby, bare of jewelry.

She said, “You gave a lecture on fears to the Four West staff last year, when I was PL-three. I thought it was quite good.”

“Thank you.”

“I enjoyed today, too. And I’ve got a referral for you, if you’re interested.”

“Sure.”

She shifted the Gladstone bag to another hand. “I’m in practice now, out in Pasadena, have privileges at Cathcart Memorial. But the kid I have in mind isn’t one of my regular patients, just a phone-in through Cathcart’s help line. They didn’t know how to handle it and sent it over to me because I’m listed as having an interest in behavioral pediatrics. When I heard what the problem was, I remembered last year’s talk and thought it would be right up your alley. Then, when I read the Grand Rounds schedule, I thought: perfect.”

“I’d be glad to help, but my office is on the other side of town.”

“No matter. They’ll come to you- they have the means. I know because I went out a few days ago to see her- it’s a little girl we’re talking about. Seven years old. Actually I came here this morning because of her. Hoping to learn something that could help me help her. But after listening to you it’s clear her problems go beyond office management. She needs someone who specializes.”

“Anxiety problems?”

Emphatic nod. “She’s just racked with fears. Multiple phobias as well as a high level of general anxiety. I’m talking really pervasive.”

“When you say you went out there, do you mean a house call?”

She smiled. “Didn’t think anyone did them anymore? At Yale Public Health they taught us to call them “home visits.’ No, actually I don’t make a habit of it- wanted them to come into the office to see me, but that’s part of the problem. They don’t travel. Or rather, the mother doesn’t. She’s an agoraphobic, hasn’t left her house for years.”

“How many years?”

“She didn’t get any more specific than “years’- and I could see even that much was hard for her, so I didn’t push. She really wasn’t prepared for being questioned at all. So I kept it brief, focused on the kid.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “What did she tell you about the kid?”

“Just that Melissa- that’s her name- was afraid of everything. The dark. Loud noises and bright lights. Being alone. New situations. And she often seems tense and jumpy. Some of it’s got to be constitutional- genetics- or maybe she’s just imitating the mother. But I’m sure some of it’s the way she lives- it’s a very strange situation. Big house- huge. One of those incredible mansions on the north side of Cathcart Boulevard out in San Labrador. Classic San Labrador- acres of land, huge rooms, dutiful servants, everything very hush-hush. And the mother stays up in her room like some Victorian lady afflicted with the vapors.”

She stopped, touched her mouth with a fingertip. “A Victorian princess, actually. She’s really beautiful. Despite the fact that one side of her face is all scarred and there appears to be some mild facial hemiplegia- subtle sagging, mostly when she talks. If she weren’t so beautiful- so symmetrical- you might never notice. No keloiding, though. Just a mesh of fine scars. I’d be willing to bet she had top-level plastic surgery years ago for something really major. Most likely a burn or some kind of deep flesh wound. Maybe that’s the root of her problem- I don’t know.”

“What’s the little girl like?”

“I didn’t see much of her, just caught a glimpse when I walked in the front door. Small and skinny and cute, very well dressed- your basic little rich girl. When I tried to talk to her she scampered away. I suspect she actually hid somewhere in her mother’s room- it’s a bunch of rooms, actually, more like a suite. While the mother and I were talking I kept hearing little rustles in the background and each time I stopped to listen, they’d stop. The mother never remarked on it, so I didn’t say anything. Figured I was lucky enough just getting up there to see her.”

I said, “Sounds like something out of a Gothic novel.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what it was. Gothic. Sort of spooky. Not that the mother was spooky- she was charming, actually. Sweet. In a vulnerable way.”

“Your basic Victorian princess,” I said. “She doesn’t leave the house at all?”

“That’s what she said. What she confessed- she’s pretty ashamed. Not that shame’s convinced her to try to leave the house. When I suggested she see if she could make it to my office, she started to get really tense. Her hands actually started shaking. So I backed off. But she did agree to have Melissa be seen by a psychologist.”

“Strange.”

“Strange is your business, isn’t it?”

I smiled.

She said, “Have I piqued your interest?”

“Do you think the mother really wants help?”

“For the girl? She says she does. But more important, the kid’s motivated. She’s the one who called the help line.”

“Seven years old and she called herself?”

“The volunteer on the line couldn’t believe it either. The line’s not intended for kids. Once in a while they get a teenager they refer to Adolescent Medicine. But Melissa must have seen one of their public service commercials on TV, copied down the number, and dialed it. And she was up late to do it- the call came in just after ten P.M.”

She lifted the Gladstone bag chest-high, popped it open, and pulled out a cassette.

“I know it sounds bizarre, but I’ve got the proof right here. They tape everything that comes over the line. I had them make me a copy.”

I said, “She must be pretty precocious.”

“Must be. I wish I’d had a chance to actually spend some time with her- what a neat kid, to take the initiative.” She paused. “What a hurt she must be going through. Anyway, after I listened to the tape I phoned the number she gave the volunteer and reached the mother. She had no idea Melissa had called. When I told her, she broke down and started to cry. But when I asked her to come in for a consultation, she said she was ill and couldn’t. I thought it was something physically debilitating, so I offered to go out there. Hence, my Gothic home visit.”

She held the tape out to me. “If you’d like, you can have a listen. It’s really something. I told the mother I’d be talking to a psychologist, took the liberty of giving her your name. But don’t feel any pressure.”

I took the cassette. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I honestly don’t know if I can make home visits to San Labrador.”

“She can come to the other side of town- Melissa can. A servant will bring her.”

I shook my head. “In a case like this, the mother should be actively involved.”

She frowned. “I know. It’s not optimal. But do you have techniques that can help the girl at all without maternal involvement? Just lower her anxiety level a bit? Anything you did might reduce her risk of turning out totally screwed up. It would be a real good deed.”

“Maybe,” I said. “If the mother doesn’t sabotage therapy.”

“I don’t think she will. She’s antsy, but seemed to really love the kid. The guilt helps us there- think how inadequate she must feel, the kid calling in like that. She knows this isn’t the right way to raise a child but can’t break out of her own pathology. It’s got to feel horrible for her. The way I see it, this is the right time to harness the guilt. If the kid gets better, maybe Mom’ll see the light, get some help for herself.”

“Is there a father in the picture?”

“No, she’s a widow. It happened when Melissa was a baby. Heart attack. I got the impression he was a much older man.”

“Sounds like you learned a lot from a brief visit.”

Her cheeks colored. “One tries. Listen, I don’t expect you to disrupt your life and drive out there on a regular basis. But getting a referral closer to home wouldn’t make any difference. Mom never leaves to go anywhere. For her, half a mile might as well be Mars. And if they do try therapy and it doesn’t work, they may never try it again. So I want somebody competent. After listening to you I’m convinced you’re right for the case. I’d greatly appreciate it if you could accept less than optimal. I’ll make it up to you with some solid referrals in the future. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“I know I sound overinvolved and maybe I am- but the whole idea of a seven-year-old calling in like that… And that house.” She raised her eyebrows. “Besides, I figure it won’t be long before my practice really gets crazy and I don’t have the time to give anyone this kind of individual attention. So I might as well enjoy it while I can, right?”

Another reach into the Gladstone. “Anyway, here’s the relevant data.” She handed me a piece of note paper topped with the logo of a pharmaceutical company. On it she’d printed:

Pt: Melissa Dickinson, DOB 6/21/71.

Mom: Gina Dickinson.

And a phone number.

I took it and put it in my pocket.

“Thanks,” she said. “At least payment won’t be a hassle. They’re not exactly Medi-Cal.”

I said, “Are you the physician of record, or do they have someone they’ve been seeing?”

“According to the mother, there’s a family doctor in Sierra Madre that Melissa’s seen occasionally in the past- immunizations, school physicals, nothing ongoing. Physically, she’s a very healthy girl. But he’s not really in the picture- hasn’t been for years. She didn’t want him contacted.”

“Why’s that?”

“The whole therapy thing. The stigma. To be perfectly frank, I had to do a sell-job. This is San Labrador we’re talking about; they’re still fighting the twentieth century. But she will cooperate- I got a commitment out of her. As to whether or not I’ll end up being their regular doc, I don’t know. Either way, if you want to send me a report, I’d sure be interested in finding out how she does.”

“Sure,” I said. “You just mentioned school physicals. Despite the fears, does she attend classes regularly?”

“She did until recently. Servants drove her and picked her up; parent-teacher conferences were conducted over the phone. Maybe in that neck of the woods it’s not that strange, but it can’t have been great for the kid, the mother never showing up for anything. Despite that, Melissa’s a terrific student- straight A’s. The mother made a point of showing me the report cards.”

I said, “What do you mean by “until recently’?”

“Lately she’s been starting to exhibit some definite symptoms of school phobia: vague physical complaints, crying in the morning, claiming she’s too scared to go to school. The mother’s been letting her stay home. To me that’s a big fat danger sign.”

“Sure is,” I said. “Especially with her role model.”

“Yup. The old biopsychosocial chain. Take enough histories and all you see is chains.”

“Chain mail,” I said. “Tough armor.”

She nodded. “But maybe we can break one this time, huh? Wouldn’t that be uplifting?”

***

I saw patients all afternoon, finished a stack of charts. As I cleared my desk I listened to the tape.

FEMALE ADULT VOICE: Cathcart help line.

CHILD’S VOICE: (barely audible) Hello.

ADULT VOICE: Help line. How may I help you?

Silence

CHILD’S VOICE: Is this (breathy, inaudible).. hospital?

AV: This is the Cathcart Hospital help line. What can I do for you?

CV: I need help. I’m…

AV: Yes?

Silence

AV: Hello? Are you there?

CV: I… I’m scared.

AV: Scared of what, dear?

CV: Everything.

Silence

AV: Is there something- or someone- right there with you, scaring you?

CV:… No.

AV: No one at all?

CV: No.

AV: Are you in some kind of danger, dear?

Silence

AV: Honey?

CV: No.

AV: No danger at all?

CV: No.

AV: Could you tell me your name, honey?

CV: Melissa.

AV: Melissa what?

CV: Melissa Anne Dickinson. (Starts to spell it out)

AV: (Breaks in) How old are you, Melissa?

CV: Seven.

AV: Are you calling from your house, Melissa?

CV: Yes.

AV: Do you know your address, Melissa?

(Tears)

AV: It’s all right, Melissa. Is something- someone or something bothering you? Right now?

CV: No. I’m just scared… always.

AV: You’re always scared?

CV: Yes.

AV: But there’s nothing there bothering you or scaring you right now? Nothing in your house?

CV: Yes.

AV: There is something?

CV: No. Nothing right here. I… (Tears)

AV: What is it, honey?

Silence

AV: Does someone at your house bother you other times?

CV: (Whispering) No.

AV: Does your mommy know you’re calling, Melissa?

CV: No. (Tears)

AV: Would she be mad if she knew you were calling?

CV: No. She’s…

AV: Yes, Melissa?

CV:… nice.

AV: Your mommy’s nice?

CV: Yes.

AV: So you’re not scared of your mommy?

CV: No.

AV: What about your daddy?

CV: I don’t have a daddy.

Silence

AV: Are you scared of anyone else?

CV: No.

AV: Do you know what you are scared of?

Silence

AV: Melissa?

CV: Darkness… burglars… things.

AV: Darkness and burglars. And things. Can you tell me what kinds of things, honey?

CV: Uh, things… all kinds of things! (Tears)

AV: Okay, honey, just hold on. We’ll get you some help. Just don’t hang up, okay?

Sniffles

AV: Okay, Melissa? Still there?

CV: Yes.

AV: Good girl. Now, Melissa, do you know your address- the street where you live?

CV: (Very rapidly) Ten Sussex Knoll.

AV: Could you please repeat that, Melissa?

CV: Ten. Sussex. Knoll. San Labrador. Cal. Ifornia. Nine-one-one-oh-eight.

AV: Very good. So you live in San Labrador. That’s really close to us- to the hospital.

Silence

AV: Melissa?

CV: Is there a doctor who can help me? Without shots?

AV: Of course there is, Melissa, and I’m going to get you that doctor.

CV: (Inaudible)

AV: What’s that, Melissa?

CV: Thank you.

A burst of static, then dead air. I turned off the recorder and phoned the number Eileen Wagner had written down. A reedy male voice answered: “Dickinson residence.”

“Mrs. Dickinson, please. This is Dr. Delaware, regarding Melissa.”

Throat clear. “Mrs. Dickinson’s not available, Doctor. However, she said to tell you that Melissa can be at your office any weekday between three and four-thirty.”

“Do you know when she’ll be available to talk?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t, Dr. Delaware. But I’ll apprise her of your call. Is that time period suitable for you?”

I checked my appointment book. “How about Wednesday? Four o’clock.”

“Very good, Doctor.” He recited my address and said, “Is that correct?”

“Yes. But I would like to talk with Mrs. Dickinson before the appointment.”

“I’ll inform her of that, Doctor.”

“Who’ll be bringing Melissa?”

“I will, sir.”

“And you are…?”

“Dutchy. Jacob Dutchy.”

“And your relationship to-”

“I’m in Mrs. Dickinson’s employ, sir. Now, in the matter of your fee, is there a preferred mode of payment?”

“A check would be fine, Mr. Dutchy.”

“And the fee itself?”

I quoted him my hourly rate.

“Very good, Doctor. Goodbye, Doctor.”

***

The next morning, a legal-size manila envelope arrived at the office by messenger. Inside was a smaller, rose-colored envelope; within that, a sheet of rose-colored stationery folded over a check.

The check was for $3,000 and was annotated Medical treatment for Melissa. At my ’78 rate, over forty sessions’ worth. The money had been drawn on a savings account at First Fiduciary Trust Bank in San Labrador. Printed in the upper left corner of the check was:

R.P. DICKINSON, TRUSTEE

DICKINSON FAMILY TRUST UDT 5-11-71

10 SUSSEX KNOLL

SAN LABRADOR, CALIFORNIA 91108

The stationery was heavy stock, folded in half, with a Crane watermark. I opened it.

At the top, in embossed black script:

Regina Paddock Dickinson

Below that, in a fine, graceful hand:

Dear Doctor Delaware,

Thank you for seeing Melissa.

I’ll be in touch.

Faithfully yours,

Gina Dickinson

Scented paper. A mixture of old roses and alpine air. But it didn’t sweeten the message:

Don’t call us, plebe. We’ll call you. Here’s a juicy check to suppress any protests.

I dialed the Dickinson residence. This time a woman answered. Middle-aged, Gallic accent, voice pitched lower than Dutchy’s.

Different pipes, same song: Madame wasn’t available. No, she had no idea when Madame would be available.

I left my name, hung up, looked at the check. All those digits. Treatment hadn’t even begun and I’d lost control. It wasn’t the way to do business, wasn’t in the best interests of the patient. But I’d committed myself to Eileen Wagner.

The tape had committed me.

a doctor who can help me. Without shots.

I thought about it for a long time, finally decided I’d stick it out long enough to do an intake at least. See if I could get a rapport with the little girl, get some sort of progress going- enough to impress the Victorian princess.

Dr. Savior.

Then, I’d start making demands.

During my lunch hour I cashed the check.

3

Dutchy was fiftyish, mid-size and plump, with slicked-down too-black hair parted on the right, apple cheeks, and razor-slash lips. He had on a well-cut but old-fashioned double-breasted blue serge suit, starched white shirt, linen pocket square, Windsor-knotted navy tie, and mirror-bright black bluchers with extra heel. When I came out of the inner office he and the girl were standing in the middle of the waiting room, she looking down at the carpet, he examining the artwork. The look on his face said my prints weren’t passing muster. When he turned to face me, his expression didn’t change.

All the warmth of a Montana hailstorm, but the girl clutched his hand as if he were Santa Claus.

She was small for her age but had a mature, well-formed face- one of those children endowed early with the countenance they’ll grow old with. An oval face, just this side of pretty, beneath bangs the color of walnut shells. The rest of her hair was long, almost to her waist, and topped with a pink flowered band. She had big round gray-green eyes with blond lashes, an upturned nose lightly freckled, and a pointy pixie chin under a narrow, timid mouth. Her clothes were too formal for school: puffed-sleeve dress of pink dotted swiss sashed with white satin tied in a bow at the back, pink lace-topped socks, and white patent-leather buckle shoes. I thought of Carroll’s Alice encountering the Queen of Hearts.

The two of them stood there, immobile. A cello and a piccolo, cast in odd duet.

I introduced myself, bending and smiling at the girl. She stared back. To my surprise, no terror.

No response at all, other than flat appraisal. Considering what had brought her to the office, I was doing great, so far.

Her right hand was swallowed by Dutchy’s meaty left one. Rather than have her relinquish it, I smiled again and held out my hand to Dutchy. He seemed surprised by the gesture and took it with reluctance, then let go at the same time he released the girl’s fingers.

“I’ll be off now,” he announced to both of us. “Forty-five minutes- correct, Doctor?”

“Correct.”

He took a step toward the door.

I was looking at the girl, bracing myself for resistance. But she just stood there, staring down at the carpet, hands pressed to her sides.

Dutchy took another step and stopped. Chewing his cheek, he turned back and patted the girl’s head. She gave him what appeared to be a reassuring smile.

“ ’Bye, Jacob,” she said. High, breathy voice. Same as on the tape.

The rose tint spread from Dutchy’s cheeks to the rest of his face. He chewed his cheek some more, lowered his arm stiffly, and mumbled something. One last glare at me and he was gone.

After the door closed I said, “Looks like Jacob’s a good friend.”

She said, “He’s my mother’s retainer.”

“But he takes care of you, too.”

“He takes care of everything.”

“Everything?”

“Our house.” She tapped her foot impatiently. “I don’t have a father, and my mother doesn’t leave the house, so Jacob does lots of things for us.”

“What kinds of things?”

House things- telling Madeleine and Sabino and Carmela and all the service people and the delivery people what to do. Sometimes he makes food- snacks and finger food. If he’s not too busy. Madeleine cooks the big hot meals. And he drives all the cars. Sabino only drives the truck.”

“All the cars,” I said. “Do you have a lot?”

She nodded. “A lot. My father liked cars and bought them before he died. Mother keeps them in the big garage even though she doesn’t drive them, so Jacob has to start them and drive them so they don’t get sticky inside the engine. There’s also a company that comes to wash them every week. Jacob watches them to make sure they do a good job.”

“Sounds like Jacob keeps busy.”

“He does. How many cars do you have?”

“Just one.”

“What kind?”

“It’s a Dodge Dart.”

“Dodge Dart,” she said, pursing her lips and thinking. “We don’t have one of those.”

“It’s not very fancy. Kind of beat-up, actually.”

“We have one like that. A Cadillac Knockabout.”

“Cadillac Knockabout,” I said. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of that model.”

“It’s the one we took today. To here. A 1962 Cadillac Fleetwood Knockabout. It’s black and old. Jacob says it’s a workhorse.”

“Do you like cars, Melissa?”

Shrug. “Not really.”

“What about toys? Do you have any favorites?”

Shrug. “Not really.”

“I’ve got toys in my office. How about we go check them out?”

She shrugged a third time but allowed me to usher her into the consult room. Once she was inside, her eyes took flight, darting and alighting upon desk, bookshelves, toy chest, back to the desk. Never settling. She knitted her hands, pulled them apart, and began a curious rolling, kneading motion, turning one set of tiny fingers over the other.

I walked over to the toy cabinet, opened it, and pointed. “I’ve got lots of stuff in here. Box games and dolls and clay and Play-Doh. Paper and pencils, too. And crayons, if you like to draw in color.”

“Why should I do that?” she said.

“Do what, Melissa?”

“Play or draw? Mother said we were going to talk.”

“Your mother was right. We are going to talk,” I said. “But sometimes kids who come here like to play or draw before they start talking. While they get used to this place.”

The hands kneaded faster. She looked down.

“Also,” I said, “playing and talking can help kids express how they feel- help get their feelings out.”

“I can get my feelings out,” she said, “by talking.”

“Great,” I said. “Let’s talk.”

She took a place on the leather sofa and I sat opposite her in my chair. She looked around some more, then placed her hands in her lap and stared straight at me.

I said, “Okay. Why don’t we start by talking about who I am and why you’re here. I’m a psychologist. Do you know what that means?”

She kneaded her fingers and kicked the couch with her heel. “I have a problem and you’re the kind of doctor who helps children who have problems and you don’t give any shots.”

“Very good. Did Jacob tell you all that?”

She shook her head. “My mother. Dr. Wagner told her about you- she’s my mother’s friend.”

I remembered what Eileen Wagner had said about a brief chat, about a little girl wandering and hiding in a big, spooky house, and wondered what friendship meant to this child. “But Dr. Wagner met your mother because of you, didn’t she, Melissa? Because of your call to the help line.”

Her body tightened and the little hands kneaded faster. I noticed that her finger pads were pink, slightly chafed.

“Yeah, but she likes my mother.”

Her eyes left mine and stared at the carpet.

“Well,” I said, backtracking, “Dr. Wagner was right. About the shots. I never give shots. Don’t even know how to give shots.”

Unimpressed, she looked at her shoes. Sticking her legs straight out, she began bobbling her feet.

“Still,” I said, “even going to a doctor who doesn’t give shots can be scary. It’s a new situation. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Her head shot up, the green eyes defiant. “I’m not scared of you.

“Good.” I smiled. “And I’m not scared of you either.”

She gave me a look that was part bafflement, mostly scorn. So much for the old Delaware wit.

“Not only don’t I give shots,” I said, “but I don’t do anything to the children who come here. I work with them. As a team. They tell me about themselves and when I know enough about them, I show them how not to be scared. Because being scared is something we learn. So we can unlearn it.”

Spark of interest in the eyes. Her legs relaxed. But more kneading, faster.

She said, “How many other kids come here?”

“Lots.”

“How many?”

“Between four and eight a day.”

“What are their names?”

“I can’t tell you that, Melissa.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a secret- just like I couldn’t tell anyone that you came here today unless you gave me permission.”

“Why?”

“Because kids who come here talk about things that are private. They want privacy- do you know what that means?”

“Privacy,” she said, “is going to the bathroom like a young lady, all by yourself, with the door closed.”

“Exactly. When kids talk about themselves, they sometimes tell me things they’ve never told anyone. Part of my job is knowing how to keep a secret. So everything that goes on in this room is a secret. Even the names of the people who come here are secret. That’s why there’s that second door.” I pointed. “It goes out to the hall. So people can leave the office without going into the waiting room and seeing other people. Would you like to see?”

“No, thank you.” More tension.

I said, “Is something bothering you right now, Melissa?”

“No.”

“Would you like to talk about what scares you?”

Silence.

“Melissa?”

“Everything.”

“Everything scares you?”

Look of shame.

“How about we start with one thing.”

“Burglars and intruders.” Reciting, without hesitation.

I said, “Did someone tell you the kinds of questions I’d be asking you today?”

Silence.

“Was it Jacob?”

Nod.

“And your mother?”

“No. Just Jacob.”

“Did Jacob also tell you how to answer my questions?”

More hesitation.

I said, “If he did, that’s okay. He’s trying to help. I just want to make sure you tell me how you feel. You’re the star of this show, Melissa.”

She said, “He told me to sit up straight, speak clearly, and tell the truth.”

“The truth about what scared you?”

“Uh-huh. And then maybe you could help me.”

Accent on the maybe. I could almost hear Dutchy’s voice.

I said, “That’s fine. Jacob’s obviously a very smart person and he takes good care of you. But when you come here, you’re the boss. You can talk about anything you want.”

“I want to talk about burglars and intruders.”

“Okay. Then that’s what we’ll do.”

I waited. She said nothing.

I said, “What do these burglars and intruders look like?”

“They’re not real burglars,” she said, scornful again. “They’re in my imagination. Pretend.”

“What do they look like in your imagination?”

More silence. She closed her eyes. The hands kneaded furiously, her body took on a faint rocking motion, and her face screwed up. She appeared to be on the brink of tears.

I leaned in closer and said, “Melissa, we don’t have to talk about this right now.”

“Big,” she said, eyes still closed. But dry. I realized that the facial tightness wasn’t a presage to tears, just intense concentration. Her eyes moved frantically beneath their lids.

Chasing images.

She said, “He’s big… with this big hat…”

Sudden stillness beneath the eyelids.

Her hands untangled, floated upward, and made wide circles. “… and a long coat and…”

“And what?”

The hands stopped circling but remained in the air. Her mouth was slightly parted but no sound came out. A slack look came onto her face. Dreamy.

Hypnotic.

Spontaneous hypnotic induction?

Not uncommon in children her age: young kids readily cross the boundary between reality and fantasy; the bright ones are often the best hypnotic subjects. Combine that with the solitary existence Eileen Wagner had described and I could see her visiting the cinema in her head on a regular basis.

Sometimes, though, the feature was a horror flick…

The hands dropped back into her lap, found one another, and began rolling and kneading. The trancelike expression lingered. She remained silent.

I said, “The burglar wears a big hat and a long coat.” Unconsciously, I’d lowered my voice and slowed it. Taking her cue. The dance of therapy.

More tension. No reply.

“Anything else?” I said gently.

She was silent.

I played a hunch. An educated guess born of so many other forty-five-minute hours. “He’s got something else besides a hat and a coat, doesn’t he, Melissa? Something in his hand?”

“Bag.” Barely audible.

I said, “Yes. The burglar carries a bag. For what?”

No reply.

“To put stuff in?”

Her eyes snapped open and her hands clamped down on her knees. She began rocking again, harder and faster, head held stiff, as if her neck were jointless.

I leaned over and touched her shoulder. Bird bones beneath cotton.

“Do you want to talk about what goes into the bag, Melissa?”

She closed her eyes and kept rocking. Trembled and hugged herself. A tear rolled down her cheek.

I patted her again, got a tissue, and wiped her eyes, half expecting her to pull away. But she allowed me to dab the tears.

Dramatic first session, movie-of-the-week perfect. But too much, too fast; it could jeopardize the therapy. I dabbed some more, searching for some way to slow it down.

She killed that notion with a single word:

“Kids.”

“The burglar puts kids in the sack?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So the burglar is really a kidnapper.”

She opened her eyes, stood up, faced me, and held up her hands as if praying. “He’s a murderer!” she cried, emphasizing each word with a shake. “A Mikoksi with acid!”

“A Mikoksi?”

“A Mikoksi with acidthatmeanspoison! Burning poison! Mikoksi threw it on her and he’s going to come back and burn her again, and me, too!”

“Who did he throw poison on, Melissa?”

Mother! And now he’s going to come back!”

“Where is this Mikoksi now?”

“In jail, but he’s going to get out and hurt us again!”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he doesn’t like us. He liked Mother but then he stopped liking her and he threw poison acid on her and tried to kill her but it only burned her on the face and she was still beautiful and could get married and have me!”

She began pacing the office, holding her temples, stooped and muttering like a little old woman.

“When did all this happen, Melissa?”

“Before I was born.” Rocking, face to the wall.

“Did Jacob tell you about it?”

Nod.

“Did your mother talk to you about it, too?”

Hesitation. Shake of head. “She doesn’t like to.”

“Why’s that?”

“It makes her sad. She used to be happy and beautiful. People took pictures of her. Then Mikoksi burned her face and she had to have operations.”

“Does Mikoksi have another name? A first name?”

She turned and faced me, truly puzzled. “I don’t know.”

“But you know he’s in jail.”

“Yes, but he’s getting out and it’s no fair and no justice!”

“Is he getting out of jail soon?”

More confusion.

“Did Jacob tell you he was getting out soon?”

“No.”

“But he did talk to you about justice.”

“Yes!”

“What does justice mean to you?”

“Being fair!”

She gave me a challenging look and put her hands on the flat place where one day her hips would be. Tension rumpled the sliver of brow beneath her bangs. Her mouth curled and she wagged a finger. “It was no fair and stupid! They should have a fair justice! They should have killed him with the acid!”

“You’re very angry at Mikoksi.”

Another incredulous look at the idiot in the chair.

I said, “That’s good. Getting really angry at him. When you’re angry at him, you’re not so scared of him.”

Both hands had fisted. She opened them, dropped them, sighed, and looked at the floor. More kneading.

I went over to her and kneeled so that we’d be at eye level if she chose to raise her eyes. “You’re a very smart girl, Melissa, and you’ve helped me a lot by being brave and talking about scary things. I know how much you want not to be afraid anymore. I’ve helped lots of other kids and I’ll be able to help you.”

Silence.

“If you want to talk some more about Mikoksi or burglars or anything else, that’s okay. But if you don’t, that’s okay, too. We’ve got some more time together before Jacob comes back. How we spend it is up to you.”

No movement or sound; the second hand on the banjo clock across the room completed half a circuit. Finally she lifted her head. Looked everywhere but at me, then homed in suddenly, squinting, as if trying to put me in focus.

“I’ll draw,” she said. “But only with pencils. Not crayons, they’re too messy.”

***

She worked the pencil slowly, a tongue tip extending from one corner of her mouth. Her artistic ability was above average, but all the finished product told me was that she’d had enough for one day: happy-face girl next to happy-face cat in front of red house and a fat-trunked tree full of apples. All of it under a huge golden sun with prehensile rays.

When she was through she pushed it across the desk and said, “You keep it.”

“Thank you. It’s terrific.”

“When am I coming back?”

“How about in two days? Friday.”

“Why not tomorrow?”

“Sometimes it’s good for kids to take some time to think about what happened before they come in.”

“I think fast,” she said. “And there’s other stuff I didn’t say yet.”

“You really want to come in tomorrow?”

“I want to get better.”

“All right then, I can see you tomorrow at five. If Jacob can bring you.”

“He will,” she said. “He wants me to get better, too.”

***

I saw her out through the separate exit and spotted Dutchy walking down the hall, a paper bag in one hand. When he saw us he frowned and looked at his watch.

Melissa said, “We’re coming back to him at five tomorrow, Jacob.”

Dutchy raised his eyebrows and said, “I believe I’m right on time, Doctor.”

“You are,” I said. “I was just showing Melissa the separate exit.”

“So other kids won’t see me or know who I am,” she said. “It’s privacy.”

“I see,” said Dutchy, looking up and down the hall. “I brought you something, young lady. To tide you over until dinner.” The top half of the bag was accordion-folded neatly. He opened it with his fingertips and drew out an oatmeal cookie.

Melissa squealed, took it from him, and prepared to bite into it.

Dutchy cleared his throat.

Melissa held the cookie mid-air. “Thank you, Jacob.”

“You’re quite welcome, young lady.”

She turned to me. “Would you like some, Dr. Delaware?”

“No, thank you, Melissa.” Sounding to myself like a charm school candidate.

She licked her lips and went to work on the cookie.

I said, “I’d like to talk to you for a moment, Mr. Dutchy.”

He glanced at his watch again. “The freeway… the longer we wait…”

I said, “Some things came up during the session. Important things.”

He said, “Really, it’s quite-”

I forced a patient grin and said, “If I’m to do my job, I’m going to need help, Mr. Dutchy.”

From the look on his face, I might have passed wind at an embassy dinner. He cleared his throat again and said, “One moment, Melissa,” and walked several feet down the corridor. Melissa, her mouth full of cookie, followed him with her eyes.

I smiled at her, said, “We’ll just be one second, hon,” and joined him.

He looked up and down the hall and folded his arms across his chest. “What is it, Doctor?”

From a foot away, he was shaven clean as palmar flesh, smelling of bay rum and fresh laundry.

I said, “She talked about what happened to her mother. Some person named Mikoksi.”

He flinched. “Really, sir, it’s not my place.”

“This is important, Mr. Dutchy. It’s obviously relevant to her fears.”

“It’s best that her mother-”

“True. The problem is I’ve left several messages with her mother that haven’t been returned. Normally, I wouldn’t even see a child without direct parental participation. But Melissa obviously needs help. Lots of help. I can provide that help but I need information.”

He chewed his cheek so long and hard I was afraid he’d gnaw through it. Down the hall, Melissa was munching and staring at us.

He said, “Whatever happened was before the child’s time.”

“Chronologically, maybe. But not psychologically.”

He stared at me for a long moment. A hint of moisture appeared in the corner of his right eye, no bigger than the diamond on a budget engagement ring. He blinked and made it disappear. “Really, this is quite awkward. I’m an employee…”

I said, “All right. I don’t want to put you in a difficult position. But please deliver the message that someone needs to talk to me as soon as possible.”

Melissa scuffed her feet. The cookie was gone. Dutchy gave her a grave but oddly tender look.

I said, “I do want to see her tomorrow at five.”

He nodded, took a step closer, so that we were almost touching, and whispered in my ear: “She pronounces it Mikoksi but the damned villain’s name was McCloskey. Joel McCloskey.”

Lowering his head and pushing it forward, like a turtle peeking out of its shell. Waiting for a reaction.

Expecting me to know something…

I said, “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

The head drew back. “Were you living in Los Angeles ten years ago, Doctor?”

I nodded.

“It was in the papers.”

“I was in school. Concentrating on my textbooks.”

“March of 1969,” he said. “March third.” A pained look crossed his face. “This is- That’s all I can say right now, Doctor. Perhaps some other time.”

“All right,” I said. “See you tomorrow.”

“Five it is.” He let out his breath and drew himself up. Tugging at his lapels, he cleared his throat. “Getting back to the present, I trust everything proceeded as planned today.”

“Everything went fine.”

Melissa was coming our way. The white satin sash had come loose and hung from a single loop, scraping the floor. Dutchy rushed over and tied it, brushed crumbs from her dress, braced her shoulders, and told her to stand up straight, young lady, a curved spine simply wouldn’t do.

She smiled up at him.

They held hands as they left the building.

***

I saw another patient a few minutes later, managed to put the cello and the piccolo out of my mind for three quarters of an hour. Leaving the office at seven, I took a five-minute drive to the Beverly Hills Library. The reading room was crowded with retirees checking out the final stock quotations and teenagers doing their homework or faking it. By seven-fifteen I was sitting at a microfilm viewer with a March ’69 spool of the Times. March 4 rolled into view. What I was looking for was on the upper left quadrant.

ACTRESS THE VICTIM OF ACID ATTACK

(HOLLYWOOD) A quiet hillside neighborhood above Hollywood Boulevard was the scene of a grisly early-morning assault upon a former fashion model currently under contract to Apex Motion Picture Studios, that left neighbors of the victim horror-struck and wondering why.

Regina Marie Paddock, 23, 2103 Beachwood Drive, Apartment 2, was awakened at home by her doorbell at 4:30 A.M., by a man claiming to be a Western Union messenger.

When she opened the door, the man brandished a bottle and flung its contents in her face. She collapsed screaming and the assailant, described as a male Negro, five eleven to six two, 190-200 pounds, escaped on foot.

The victim was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital where she was treated for third-degree facial burns. A hospital spokesman described her condition as “serious, but stable. She’s in no mortal danger but is in considerable pain, having sustained extensive tissue damage to the left side of her face. Miraculously, her eyes were unaffected.”

An Apex spokesman expressed the studio’s “shock and deep regret over the vicious, unprovoked attack on the talented Gina Prince {Miss Paddock’s stage name}. We will do everything within our power to work with the authorities in swiftly apprehending the perpetrator of this heinous crime.”

The victim was born in 1946 in Denver, Colorado, moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19, was hired as a photographic and fashion model by the prestigious Flax Agency, and quickly advanced to feature spreads in Glamour and Vogue. After leaving Flax she switched to the now defunct Belle Vue Agency, eventually left modeling, signed with the William Morris Agency and received an acting contract at Apex.

Although she has not yet been cast in a film, the studio spokesman said she had been under consideration for “several important roles. She’s a very talented and beautiful young lady. We’ll do everything to see that her career remains untainted by this tragic occurrence.”

Police are actively searching for the assailant and request that any information be directed to Detectives Savage or Flores at the LAPD’s Hollywood Division.

At the center of the article was a head shot that could have been reduced from a Vogue cover: oval face on a long stalk of neck, framed by straight, pale hair worn long and layered in a complex style, sophisticated for the time. Arched eyebrows, high cheekbones, huge, pale eyes, pouty mouth. The shadowy perfection of a study by Avedon or someone almost as good.

I thought of what acid could do to perfection, backed away from that, and tried to look at the photo as if it were just a photo.

The features, taken singly, were almost identical to Melissa’s, but the gestalt added up to a good deal more than just this side of pretty. I wondered whether puberty would bring Melissa to her mother’s level of beauty.

I turned the knob on the viewer. A brief summary of Gina Paddock’s medical status appeared in the next day’s paper. Condition downgraded to stable. No leads. Another message of sympathy from the studio, augmented by a $5,000 reward for information leading to capture. But no more pledges of an untainted career.

I kept dialing. Two weeks later:

SUSPECT IN ACID ATTACK NABBED

Apprehended After Police

Receive Anonymous Tip

(LOS ANGELES) Police announced the arrest of a suspect in the March 3 early-morning acid attack that left actress Gina Prince (Regina Marie Paddock) permanently disfigured.

The arrest, in South Los Angeles, of Melvin Louis Findlay, 28, was announced at an 11:00 P.M. press conference at Parker Center by Hollywood Division Squad Commander Bryce Donnemeister, who described Findlay as a known felon and recent parolee from the Men’s Colony at Chino, where he served eighteen months of a three-year sentence for extortion. Findlay’s other arrests and convictions include aggravated assault, robbery, and vehicular grand theft.

“Physical evidence in our possession leads us to believe we have a strong case against this individual,” said Donnemeister. He refused to elaborate on whether the victim had identified Findlay and offered no details on the arrest other than to say that an anonymous phone tip had led the police to Findlay and that “subsequent investigation confirmed that the information provided to us was valid.”

Miss Prince continues to convalesce at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where her condition is described as good. Plastic surgeons have been called in to consult on the reconstruction of her face.

Three days after that:

FORMER EMPLOYER ARRESTED

IN ACID ASSAULT ON ACTRESS

(LAS VEGAS) The former employer and onetime companion of acid attack victim Gina Prince (Regina Marie Paddock) was arrested last night by Las Vegas police as a prime suspect in the March 3 assault that left the former fashion model and actress with extensive facial disfiguration.

Joel Henry McCloskey, 34, was arrested in his room at the Flamingo Hotel, where he had registered under a false name, and was placed in the custody of the Las Vegas Police Department in compliance with a warrant issued by the Criminal Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

LAPD Hollywood Division Commander Bryce Donnemeister said that information provided by another suspect in the case, Melvin Findlay, 28, arrested March 18, had incriminated McCloskey. “It appears at this time that Findlay was hired help and McCloskey did the alleged hiring.”

Donnemeister added that Findlay had worked for McCloskey in 1967 in a “janitorial capacity” but declined further comment pending a full investigation.

McCloskey, a native of New Jersey and a former nightclub singer, came to Los Angeles in 1962 with aspirations of being an actor. When those failed, he opened the Belle Vue Modeling Agency. After luring Miss Prince away from the larger, more established Flax Agency, he tried to serve as her film agent, according to Hollywood sources.

McCloskey and Miss Prince are reported to have developed a personal relationship that ended when Miss Prince left Belle Vue and, in an attempt to trade fashion modeling for screen stardom, signed with the William Morris Agency. Shortly after, Belle Vue’s fortunes plummeted, and McCloskey declared bankruptcy on February 9 of this year.

When asked whether revenge figured as a motive in the attack, Police Commander Donnemeister said, “We’re reserving comment until the suspect has been fully and properly questioned.”

Miss Prince continues to recuperate at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where plans are being made for her to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery.

There was a photo with this one, too: a small, dark, slender man being led away by two detectives who dwarfed him. He had on a sport coat, slacks, and an open-neck white shirt. His head was lowered and his longish hair hung down over the top half of his face. What was visible of the bottom half was angular, grim, James Deanish, and in need of a shave.

It took a while to locate the conclusion of the case. McCloskey’s extradition and arraignment, Melvin Findlay’s agreement to plead guilty and testify against McCloskey in return for a simple assault conviction, McCloskey’s indictment for attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and mayhem. Arraignment proceedings, then a three-month lag until the trial.

The judicial process was swift. The prosecutor distributed selections from Gina Prince’s modeling portfolio to the jurors, followed by close-ups of her ravaged face taken in the emergency room. A brief appearance by the victim, bandaged and sobbing. Testimony by medical experts to the effect that her face would be scarred permanently.

Melvin Findlay testified that McCloskey had hired him to “trash the {obscenity} girl’s face, make sure she was no {obscenity} good for nobody, and if she died, he wouldn’t have no {obscenity} problem with that, too.”

The prosecution produced a taped confession that the defense tried unsuccessfully to challenge. The tape was played in open court: McCloskey tearfully admitting to hiring Findlay to maim Gina Prince but refusing to explain why.

The defense didn’t dispute the facts but attempted an insanity defense, which was hampered by McCloskey’s refusal to talk to the hired-gun psychiatrists. The prosecution’s psychiatric pistol testified to observing McCloskey in the county jail and finding him “uncooperative and depressed, but lucid and free of serious mental disease.” It took two hours for the jury to bring in guilty verdicts on all charges.

At the sentencing hearing, the judge called McCloskey “an abject monster, one of the most despicable defendants it has been my displeasure to encounter in my twenty years on the bench,” and handed down a combination of sentences that added up to twenty-three years in San Quentin. Everyone seemed satisfied. Even McCloskey, who fired his lawyers and refused to appeal.

After the trial, the press tried to interview the jurors. They chose to have their foreman speak for them and he was concise:

“Only a semblance of justice could be accomplished,” said Jacob P. Dutchy, 46, an executive aide at Dickinson Industries, Pasadena. “This young lady’s life will never be the same. But we did what we could to ensure that McCloskey pays the harshest penalty possible under the law.”

A Mikoksi with acid.

Twenty-three years in San Q.

Time off for good behavior could cut it in half. A belated appeal might shave off more. Meaning McCloskey’s release could be imminent- if it hadn’t already taken place.

No doubt Dutchy would know the precise release date- he’d be the type to follow that kind of thing closely. I wondered how he and the child’s mother had explained it all to Melissa.

Dutchy. Interesting fellow. Throwback to another age.

From juror to retainer. I was curious about the evolution but had little hope of satisfying my curiosity. The way things were going, I’d be lucky to get an accurate history on my patient.

I thought of Dutchy’s secretiveness and devotion. Gina Dickinson had the ability to inspire strong loyalties. Was it the helplessness, the same princess-in-distress frailty that had brought Eileen Wagner out on a house call?

What did growing up with a mother like that do to a child?

Men with sacks…

Same dream I’d heard from so many other children, almost an archetype. Children I’d cured.

But I sensed this child would be different. No easy heroism here.

I had a deli dinner at Nate ’n Al, on Beverly Drive: corned beef on rye accompanied by the tape-loop blather of Hollywood types shmoozing about pending deals, drove home, and phoned a San Labrador exchange that had stuck in my head.

This time an answering machine with Jacob Dutchy’s voice informed me no one was available and invited me, halfheartedly, to leave a message.

I repeated my urgent desire to speak with the lady of the house at 10 Sussex Knoll.

4

No callback that evening, nor the following day, and as 5:00 P.M. approached I resigned myself to pumping Dutchy for information again- awkward position be damned.

But he didn’t show up. Instead, Melissa was accompanied by a Mexican man in his sixties- broad and low-slung, hard and muscular despite his age, with a thin gray mustache, beak nose, and hands as rough and brown as cedar bark. He wore khaki work clothes and rubber-soled shoes and held a sweat-stained beige canvas hat in front of his groin.

“This is Sabino,” said Melissa. “He takes care of our plants.”

I said hello and introduced myself. The gardener smiled uncomfortably and muttered, “Hernandez, Sabino.”

“Today we took the truck,” said Melissa, “and looked down on everyone.”

I said, “Where’s Jacob?”

She shrugged. “Doing stuff.”

At the mention of Dutchy’s name, Hernandez stood up straighter.

I thanked him and told him Melissa would be free in forty-five minutes. Then I noticed he wasn’t wearing a watch.

“Take a seat, if you’d like,” I said, “or you can leave and come back at five forty-five.”

“Okeh.” He remained standing.

I pointed to a chair.

He said, “Ohh,” and sat down, still holding his hat.

I took Melissa into the consult room.

***

Healer’s challenge: Put aside my annoyance at the way the adults were fancy-dancing around me and concentrate on the child.

Plenty to concentrate on, today.

She began talking the moment she sat down, looking away from me and reciting her terrors nonstop, in a singsong oral-report voice that told me she’d studied hard for therapy. Closing her eyes as she went on, and climbing in power and pitch until she was nearly shouting, then stopping and shivering with dread, as if she’d suddenly visualized something overwhelming.

But before I could say anything, she was off again. Fluctuating between blurt and whisper, like a radio with a broken volume control.

“Monsters… big bad things.”

“What kinds of big bad things, Melissa?”

“I don’t know… just bad.”

She went silent again, bit down on her lower lip, began rocking.

I put my hand on her shoulder.

She opened her eyes and said, “I know they’re imaginary but they still scare me.”

“Imaginary things can be very scary.”

Saying it in a soothing voice, but she’d reeled me into her world and I was flashing mental pictures of my own: gibbering hordes of fanged and hooded shadow-things that lurked in the nightgloom. Trapdoors unlatched by the death of light. Trees turned to witches; shrubs to hunched, slimy corruptions; the moon, a looming, voracious fire.

The power of empathy. And more. Memories of other nights, so long ago; a boy in a bed, listening to the winds whip across the Missouri flatlands… I broke away from that and focused on what she was saying:

“… that’s why I hate to sleep. Going to sleep brings the dreams.”

“What kinds of dreams?”

She shivered again and shook her head. “I make myself stay awake but then I can’t stop it anymore and I sleep and the dreams come.”

I took her fingers in mine and stilled them with touch and therapeutic murmurings.

She turned silent.

I said, “Do you have bad dreams every night?”

“Yes. And more. Mother said one time there were seven.”

“Seven bad dreams in one night?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember them?”

She liberated her hand, closed her eyes, and retreated to a detached tone. A seven-year-old clinician, presenting at Case Conference. The case of a certain nameless little girl who woke up cold and sweating from her sleeping place at the foot of her mother’s bed. Lurching awake, heart pounding, clawing the sheets to keep from falling endlessly, uncontrollably, into a huge black maw. Clawing but losing her grip and feeling everything float away like a kite with a broken string. Crying out in the darkness and rolling- hurtling- toward her mother’s warm body, a love-seeking missile. Mother’s arm reaching out unconsciously and drawing her near.

Lying there, frozen, staring up at the ceiling, trying to convince herself it was just a ceiling, that the things crawling up there weren’t- couldn’t be- real. Inhaling Mother’s perfume, listening to Mother’s light snores. Making sure Mother was deep asleep before reaching out and touching satin and lace, a stretch of soft arm-flesh. Then up to the face. The good side… somehow she always ended up next to the good side.

Freezing again, as she said good side for the second time.

Her eyes opened. She threw a panicky glance at the separate exit.

A convict weighing the risks of jailbreak.

Too much, too soon.

Leaning in close, I told her she’d done well; we could spend the rest of the session drawing again, or playing a game.

She said, “I’m scared of my room.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s big.”

“Too big for you?”

A guilty look crossed her face. Guilty confusion.

I asked her to tell me more about her room. She painted more pictures.

Tall ceiling with pictures of ladies in fancy dresses on it. Pink carpets, pink-and-gray lamb and pussycat wallpaper that Mother had picked especially for her when she was a baby in a crib. Toys. Music boxes and miniature dishes and glass figurines, three separate dollhouses, a zoo of stuffed animals. A canopy bed from somewhere else far away, she forgot where, with pillows and a fluffy comforter filled with goose feathers. Lace-trimmed windows that were round on top and went almost up to the ceiling. Windows with bits of colored glass in them that made colored pictures on your skin. A seat in front of one of the windows that had a view of the grass and the flowers Sabino tended all day; she wanted to call down and say hello to him but was afraid to get too close to the window.

“Sounds like a huge room,” I said.

“Not just one room, a bunch. There’s a sleeping room and a bathroom and a dressing room with mirrors and lights all around them, next to my closet. And a playroom- that’s where most of the toys are, but the stuffed animals are in the sleeping room. Jacob calls the sleeping room the nursery, which means a baby room.”

Frown.

“Does Jacob treat you like a baby?”

“No! I haven’t used a crib since I was three!”

“Do you like having such a big room?”

“No! I hate it! I never go inside it.”

The guilty look returned.

Two minutes until the session was over. She hadn’t budged from her chair since she’d sat down.

I said, “You’re doing a great job, Melissa. I’ve really learned a lot. But how about we stop for now?”

She said, “I don’t like to be alone. Ever.”

“No one likes to be alone for a long time. Even grown-ups get afraid of that.”

“I don’t like it ever. I waited until my birthday- till I was seven- to go to the bathroom by myself. With the door closed and privacy.”

Sitting back, daring me to disapprove.

I said, “Who went with you till you were seven?”

“Jacob and Mother and Madeleine and Carmela kept me company till I was four. Then Jacob said I was a young lady now, only ladies should be with me, so he stopped going. Then, when I was seven I decided to go there alone. It made me cry and hurt my stomach and once I threw up, but I did it. With the door closed a little, then all the way- but I still don’t lock it. No way.”

Another dare.

I said, “You did great.”

Frown. “Sometimes it still makes me nervous. I’d still like to have someone there- not looking, just there, keeping me company. But I don’t ask them.”

“Good for you,” I said. “You fought your fear and beat it.”

“Yes,” she said. Astonished. Translating ordeal into victory for what appeared to be the first time.

“Did your mother and Jacob tell you you did a good job?”

“Uh-huh.” Dismissive wave. “They always says nice things.”

“Well, you did do a good job. You won a tough fight. That means you can win other fights- beat up other fears. One by one. We can work together and pick the fears you want to fight, then plan how we’ll do it, step by step. Slowly. So it’s never scary for you. If you’d like, we can start the next time you’re here- on Monday.”

I got up.

She stayed in her chair. “I want to talk some more.”

“I’d like to, too, Melissa, but our time is up.”

“Just a little.” Hint of whine.

“We really have to end now. I’ll see you on Monday, which is only…”

I touched her shoulder. She shrugged me off and her eyes got wet.

I said, “I’m sorry, Melissa. I wish there-”

She shot out of the chair and shook a finger at me. “If your job is to help me, why can’t you help me now?” Stamping her foot.

“Because our sessions together have to end at a certain time.”

“Why?”

“I think you know.”

“ ’Cause you have to see other kids?”

“Yes.”

“What’re their names?”

“I can’t talk about that, Melissa. Remember?”

“How come they’re more important than me?”

“They’re not, Melissa. You’re very important to me.”

“Then why are you kicking me out?”

Before I could answer, she burst into tears and headed for the door to the waiting room. I followed her, wondering for the thousandth time about the sanctity of the three-quarter hour, the idolatry of the clock. But knowing, also, the importance of limits. For any child, but especially this one, who seemed to have so few. Who’d been sentenced to live out her formative years in the terrible, unbounded splendor of a fairy-tale world.

Nothing scarier than fairy tales…

When I got to the waiting room she was tugging at Hernandez’s hand, crying and insisting, “Come on, Sabino!” He stood, looking frightened and puzzled. When he saw me, puzzlement changed to suspicion.

I said, “She’s a little upset. Please have her mother call me as soon as possible.”

Blank look.

“Su madre,” I said. “El telÉfono. I’ll see her Monday at five. Lunes. Cinco.

“Okeh.” He glared and squeezed his hat.

Melissa stamped her foot twice and said, “No way! I’m never coming back here! Never!

Yanking at the rough brown hand, Hernandez stood and continued to study me. His eyes were watery and dark and had hardened, as if he were considering retribution.

I thought of all the protective layers surrounding this child, how ineffectual all of it was.

I said, “Goodbye, Melissa. See you Monday.”

“No way!” She ran out.

Hernandez put on his hat and went after her.

***

I checked with my service at day’s end. No messages from San Labrador.

I wondered how Hernandez had communicated what he’d seen. Prepared myself for a cancellation of the Monday appointment. But no message to that effect came that evening or the next day. Maybe they wouldn’t offer that courtesy to a plebe.

I phoned the Dickinson household and got Dutchy on the third ring.

“Hello, Doctor.” That same formality, but no irritation.

“I’m calling to confirm Melissa’s appointment on Monday.”

“Monday,” he said. “Yes, I have that. Five o’clock, correct?”

“That’s it.”

“Is there anything available earlier, by chance? The traffic from our side of-”

“That’s all I’ve got, Mr. Dutchy.”

“Five it is, then. Thank you for calling, Doctor, and good eve-”

“One second,” I said. “There’s something you need to know. Melissa got upset today, left the office in tears.”

“Oh? She seemed in fine spirits when she got home.”

“Did she say anything to you about not wanting to come on Monday?”

“No. What was the trouble, Doctor?”

“Nothing serious. She wanted to stay past the appointed time, and when I told her she couldn’t, she burst into tears.”

“I see.”

“She’s used to having her way, isn’t she, Mr. Dutchy?”

Silence.

I said, “I’m mentioning it because that may be part of the problem- lack of limits. For a child it can be like drifting in the ocean without an anchor. Some changes in basic discipline may be in order.”

“Doctor, I’m not in any position to-”

“Of course, I forgot. Why don’t you put Mrs. Dickinson on the phone right now and I’ll discuss it with her.”

“I’m afraid Mrs. Dickinson is indisposed.”

“I can wait. Or call back, if you can let me know when she will be disposed.”

Sigh. “Doctor, please. I’m not able to move mountains.”

“I wasn’t aware I was asking you to.”

Silence. Throat clear.

I said, “Are you able to deliver a message?”

“Certainly.”

“Tell Mrs. Dickinson this is an untenable situation. That although I have compassion for her situation, she’s going to have to stop avoiding me if she wants me to treat Melissa.”

“Dr. Delaware, please- this is quite- You really mustn’t give up on the child. She’s so… such a good, smart little girl. It would be a terrible waste if…”

“If what?”

Please, Doctor.”

“I’m trying to be patient, Mr. Dutchy, but I’m really having trouble understanding what the big deal is. I’m not asking Mrs. Dickinson to leave her house- all I want to do is talk. I understand her situation- I did my research. March 3, ’69. Does she have a phobia of the telephone, too?”

Pause. “It’s doctors. She had so many surgeries- so much pain. They kept taking her apart like a jigsaw puzzle and putting her back together again. I’m not denigrating the medical profession. Her surgeon was a magician. He nearly restored her. Externally. But inside… She just needs time, Dr. Delaware. Give me time. I’ll get her to see how vital it is she contact you. But please be patient, sir.”

My turn to sigh.

He said, “She’s not without insight into her… into the situation. But after what the woman’s been through-”

“She’s afraid of doctors,” I said. “Yet she met with Dr. Wagner.”

“Yes,” he said. “That was… a surprise. She doesn’t cope well with surprises.”

“Are you saying she had some sort of adverse reaction just to meeting with Dr. Wagner?”

“Let’s just say it was difficult for her.”

“But she did it, Mr. Dutchy. And survived. That could be therapeutic in and of itself.”

“Doctor-”

“Is it because I’m a man? Would it be easier for her to deal with a female therapist?”

“No!” he said. “Absolutely not! It’s not that at all.”

“Just doctors,” I said. “Of any gender.”

“That’s correct.” Pause. “Please, Dr. Delaware”- his voice had softened-“please be patient.”

“All right. But in the meantime someone’s going to have to give me facts. Details. Melissa’s developmental history. The family structure.”

“You deem that absolutely necessary?”

“Yes. And it needs to be soon.”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll fill you in. Within the limitations of my situation.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“Nothing- nothing at all. I’ll give you a comprehensive history.”

“Tomorrow at noon,” I said. “We’ll have lunch.”

“I don’t generally have lunch, Doctor.”

“Then you can watch me eat, Mr. Dutchy. You’ll be doing most of the talking anyway.”

***

I picked a place midway between the west side and his part of town, one I thought sufficiently conservative for his sensibilities: the Pacific Dining Car on Sixth near Witmer, just a few blocks west of downtown. Dim rooms, polished mahogany paneling, red leather, linen napkins. Lots of financial types and corporate attorneys and political backstagers eating prime beef and talking zoning variances, sports scores, supply and demand.

He’d arrived early and was waiting for me in a back booth, dressed in the same blue suit or its twin. As I approached he half-rose and gave a courtly bow.

I sat down, called for the waiter, and ordered Chivas straight up. Dutchy asked for tea. We waited for the drinks without talking. Despite his frosty demeanor he looked out of his element and slightly pitiable- a nineteenth-century man transported to a distant, vulgar future he couldn’t hope to comprehend.

Caught in an awkward position.

My ire had faded since yesterday and I’d pledged to avoid confrontation. So I started by telling him how much I appreciated his taking the time to see me. He said nothing and looked thoroughly uncomfortable. Small talk was clearly out of the question. I wondered if anyone had ever called him by his first name.

The waiter brought the drinks. Dutchy regarded his tea with the inherently disapproving scrutiny of an English peer, finally raised his cup to his lips, sipped, and put it down quickly.

“Not hot enough?” I said.

“No, it’s fine, sir.”

“How long have you worked for the Dickinson family?”

“Twenty years.”

“Long before the trial, then.”

He nodded and raised his cup again but didn’t put it to his lips. “Being assigned to the jury was a stroke of fate- not one that I welcomed, at first. I wanted to apply for exemption, but Mr. Dickinson preferred I serve. Said it was my civic duty. He was a civic-minded man.” His lip trembled.

“When did he die?”

“Seven and a half years ago.”

Surprised, I said, “Before Melissa was born?”

“Mrs. Dickinson was expecting Melissa when it-” He looked up, startled, and swung his head to the right. The waiter was approaching from that direction, bearing the blackboard. Imperious and well-spoken and black as coal; Dutchy’s African cousin.

I chose the T-bone steak, bloody rare. Dutchy asked if the shrimp was fresh that day and when informed that it certainly was, ordered shrimp salad.

When the waiter left I said, “How old was Mr. Dickinson when he died?”

“Sixty-two.”

“How did he die?”

“On the tennis court.”

The lip trembled some more but the rest of his face remained impassive. He fumbled with his teacup and tightened his mouth.

“Did your serving on the jury have anything to do with getting them together, Mr. Dutchy?”

Nod. “That’s what I meant by a stroke of fate. Mr. Dickinson came with me to court. Sat in during the trial and was… entranced by her. He’d followed the case in the papers before I was impaneled. Had commented several times- over his morning paper- on the profoundness of the tragedy.”

“Had he known Mrs. Dickinson before the attack?”

“No, not in the least. His concern, in the beginning, was… thematic. And he was a kind man.”

I said, “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by thematic.”

“Grief for beauty lost,” he said, like a teacher announcing an essay theme. “Mr. Dickinson was a great aesthete. A conservationist and a preservationist. He’d spent much of his life dedicated to beautifying his world, and was terribly hurt by the degradation of beauty. However, he never allowed his concern to cross ethical bounds. When I was selected for the jury he said he’d be accompanying me to court but that both of us needed to be quite scrupulous about not discussing the case. He was also an honest man, Dr. Delaware. Diogenes would have rejoiced.”

“An aesthete,” I said. “What kind of business was he in?”

He looked down his nose at me. “I’m referring to Mr. Arthur Dickinson, sir.”

Once more, no bells. This guy had a way of making me feel like a D student. Rather than come across a complete philistine, I said, “Of course. The philanthropist.”

He continued to stare at me.

I said, “So how did the two of them finally meet?”

“The trial intensified Mr. Dickinson’s concern- hearing her testimony, seeing her face bandaged. He visited her in the hospital. As chance had it, he’d been a benefactor of the very surgical wing in which she’d been placed. He conferred with the doctors and made sure she was receiving the very best care. Brought in the top man in the plastics field- Professor Albano Montecino from Brazil, a true genius. The man had done pioneering work in facial construction. Mr. Dickinson arranged for him to obtain medical privileges and exclusive use of an operating room.”

Sweat had glossed Dutchy’s brow. He pulled out a handkerchief and patted.

“Such pain,” he said, facing me squarely. “Seventeen separate surgeries, Doctor. Someone with your background can appreciate what that means. Seventeen invasions- each one excruciating. Months of recuperation, long stretches of immobility. You can understand why she’s taken to solitude.”

I nodded and said, “Were the operations successful?”

“Professor Montecino was pleased, pronounced her one of his grand triumphs.”

“Does she agree with him?”

Disapproving look. “I’m not privy to her opinions, Doctor.”

“Over how long a period was she operated on?”

“Five years.”

I did some mental calculations. “So she was pregnant during part of it.”

“Yes, well… the pregnancy interrupted the surgical process- tissue changes brought about by hormones, physical risks. Professor Montecino said she’d have to wait and be monitored closely. He even suggested… termination. But she refused.”

“Was the pregnancy planned?”

Dutchy blinked hard and drew back his head- the turtle once more- as if unable to believe what he’d heard. “Good Lord, sir, I don’t pry into the motivations of my employers.”

I said, “Excuse me if I wander into uncharted territory from time to time, Mr. Dutchy. I’m just trying to get as full a background as possible. For Melissa’s sake.”

He harrumphed. “Shall we talk about Melissa, then?”

“All right. She’s told me quite a bit about her fears. Why don’t you give me your impressions.”

“My impressions?”

“Your observations.”

“My observations are that she’s a terribly frightened little girl. Everything frightens her.”

“Such as?”

He thought for a moment. “Loud noises, for one. They can literally make her jump. Even those that aren’t very loud- at times it seems to be the suddenness of it that sets her off. A tree rustling or footsteps- or even music- has the ability to put her in a crying fit. The doorbell. It seems to occur when she’s been in a period of unusual calm.”

“Sitting by herself, daydreaming?”

“Yes. She daydreams a lot. Talks to herself.” Closing his mouth, wanting a comment from me.

I said, “What about bright lights? Have they ever scared her?”

“Yes,” he said, surprised. “Yes, they have. I can recall a specific incident, several months ago. One of the maids purchased a camera with a flashbulb and was traipsing around the house trying it out.” Another disapproving look. “She surprised Melissa as the child ate breakfast and snapped a picture. The sound and sight of the bulb going off distressed Melissa greatly.”

“Distressed her in what way?”

“Tears, screaming, breakfast rejected. She even started hyperventilating. I had her breathe into a paper bag until her respiration returned to normal.”

“Shift in arousal,” I said, more to myself than to him.

“Pardon me, Doctor?”

“Sudden changes in arousal- in her psychophysiologic level of consciousness- seem to bother her.”

“Yes, I suppose they do. What can be done about that?”

I held out my hand in a restraining gesture. “She told me she has bad dreams every night.”

“That’s true,” he said. “Often more than once a night.”

“Describe what she does while she’s having them.”

“I can’t say, Doctor. When they occur she’s with her moth-”

I frowned.

He caught himself. “However, I do recall observing a few incidents. She cries a lot. Cries and screams. Thrashes around and fights comfort, refusing to go back to sleep.”

“Thrashes around,” I said. “Does she ever talk about what she saw in the dream?”

“At times.”

“But not always?”

“No.”

“When she does, are there any consistent themes?”

“Monsters, ghosts, that kind of thing. I don’t really pay much mind. My efforts are concentrated on getting her settled.”

“One thing you can do in the future,” I said, “is pay close mind. Keep a written record of what she says during these incidents and bring it in to me.” I realized I sounded imperious. Wanting to make him the D student. Power struggle with a butler?

But he was comfortable with the subservient role, said “Very well, sir,” and raised his teacup to his lips.

I said, “Does she seem completely awake after having a nightmare?”

“No, she doesn’t,” he said. “Not always. Sometimes she sits up with a horrid, frozen look on her little face, screaming inconsolably and waving her hands. We- I try to wake her but it’s impossible. She’s even gotten out of her bed and walked around, still screaming, impossible to wake. We just wait until it subsides, then return her to bed.”

“To her own bed?”

“No. Her mother’s.”

“She never sleeps in her own bed?”

Shake of the head. “No, she sleeps with her mother.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get back to those times when she can’t be awakened. Does she scream about anything in particular?”

“No, there are no words. Just a terrible… howling.” Wince. “It’s really quite disturbing.”

“You’re describing something called night terrors,” I said. “They’re not nightmares, which take place- as do all dreams- during light sleep. Night terrors occur when the sleeper arouses too quickly from deep sleep. Rudely awakened, so to speak. It’s a disorder of arousal, related to sleepwalking and bed-wetting. Does she wet the bed?”

“Occasionally.”

“How often?”

“Four or five times a week. Sometimes less, sometimes more.”

“Have you done anything about it?”

Shake of the head.

“Does it bother her that she wets the bed?”

“On the contrary,” he said. “She seems rather casual about it.”

“So you have talked to her about it.”

“Only to tell her- once or twice- that young ladies need to be careful about their personal hygiene. She ignored me and I didn’t pursue it.”

“How does her mother feel? How does her mother react to the wetting?”

“She has the sheets changed.”

“It’s her bed being wet. That doesn’t bother her?”

“Apparently not. Doctor, what do these attacks- these terrors- mean? Medically speaking?”

“There’s probably a genetic component involved,” I said. “Night terrors run in families. So do bed-wetting and sleepwalking. All of it probably has something to do with brain chemistry.”

He looked worried.

I said, “But they aren’t dangerous, just disruptive. And they usually go away by themselves, without treatment, by adolescence.”

“Ah,” he said. “So time is on our side.”

“Yes, it is. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them. They can be treated. And they’re also a warning sign- there’s more than just pure biology involved. Stress often increases the number of attacks and prolongs them. She’s telling us she’s troubled, Mr. Dutchy. Telling us with her other symptoms, as well.”

“Yes, of course.”

The waiter arrived with the food. We ate in silence, and though Dutchy had said he didn’t take lunch, he consumed his shrimp with genteel fervor.

When we finished I ordered a double espresso and he had his teapot refilled.

After finishing my coffee, I said, “Getting back to the genetic issue, are there any other children- from a previous marriage?”

“No. Though there was a previous marriage. For Mr. Dickinson. But no children.”

“What happened to the first Mrs. Dickinson?”

He looked annoyed. “She died of leukemia- a fine young woman. The marriage had only lasted two years. It was very difficult for Mr. Dickinson. That’s when he plunged himself more deeply into his art collection.”

“What did he collect?”

“Paintings, drawings and etchings, antiquities, tapestries. He had an exceptional eye for composition and color, sought out damaged masterpieces and had them restored. Some he restored himself- he’d learned the craft as a student. That was his true passion- restoration.”

I thought of him restoring his second wife. As if he’d read my mind, Dutchy gave me a sharp look.

“What else,” I said, “besides loud noises and bright lights, is Melissa afraid of?”

“The darkness. Being alone. And at times, nothing at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’ll throw a fit with no provocation.”

“What does “a fit’ look like?”

“Very similar to what I’ve already described. Crying, rapid breathing, running around screaming. Sometimes she’ll simply lie on the floor and kick her feet. Or clutch the nearest adult and hold on like a… a limpet.

“Do these fits generally occur after she’s been refused something?”

“Not typically- there is that, of course. She doesn’t take kindly to being restricted. What child does?”

“So she has tantrums, but these fits go beyond that.”

“I’m referring to genuine fear, Doctor. Panic. It seems to come out of nowhere.”

“Does she ever say what’s scaring her?”

“Monsters. “Bad things.’ Sometimes she claims to hear noises. Or see and hear things.”

“Things no one else hears or sees?”

“Yes.” Tremble in his voice.

I said, “Does that bother you? More than the other symptoms?”

“One does wonder,” he said softly.

“If you’re worried about psychosis or some sort of thought disorder, don’t. Unless there’s something else going on that you haven’t told me. Like self-destructive behavior, or bizarre speech.”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said. “I suppose it’s all part of her imagination?”

“That’s exactly what it is. She’s got a good one, but from what I’ve seen, she’s very much in touch with reality. Children her age typically see and hear things that adults don’t.”

He looked doubtful.

I said, “It’s all part of play. Play is fantasy. The theater of childhood. Kids compose dramas in their heads, talk to imaginary playmates. It’s a kind of self-hypnosis that’s necessary for healthy growth.”

He remained noncommittal, but was listening.

I said, “Fantasy can be therapeutic, Mr. Dutchy. Can actually reduce fears by giving children a sense of control over their lives. But for certain children- those who are high-strung, introverted, those living in stressful environments- that same ability to paint mental pictures can lead to anxiety. The pictures simply become too vivid. Once again, there may be a constitutional factor. You said her father was an excellent art restorer. Did he show any other sort of creativity?”

“Most definitely. He was an architect by trade and a gifted painter in his own right- when he was younger.”

“Why’d he stop?”

“He convinced himself he wasn’t good enough to justify devoting much time to it, destroyed all his work, never painted again, and began collecting. Traveling the world. His architecture degree was from the Sorbonne- he loved Europe. He built some lovely buildings before he invented the strut.”

“The strut?”

“Yes,” he said, as if explaining the ABC’s. “The Dickinson strut. It’s a process for strengthening steel, used extensively in construction.”

“What about Mrs. Dickinson?” I said. “She was an actress. Any other creative outlets there?”

“I have no idea, Doctor.”

“How long has she been agoraphobic- afraid to leave the house?”

“She leaves the house,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Yes, sir. She strolls the grounds.”

“Does she ever leave the grounds?”

“No.”

“How large are the grounds?”

“Six and three-quarter acres. Approximately.”

“Does she stroll them extensively- from corner to corner?”

Throat clear. Cheek chew. “She prefers to remain fairly close to the house. Is there anything else, Doctor?”

My initial question remained unanswered; he’d nit-picked his way out of giving a direct reply. “How long has she been that way- not leaving the grounds?”

“From the… beginning.”

“From the time of the attack?”

“Yes, yes. It’s quite logical, really, when one understands the chain of events. When Mr. Dickinson brought her home right after the wedding, she was in the midst of the surgical process. In great agony, still very frightened- traumatized by the… by what had been done to her. She never left her room, on Professor Montecino’s orders- she was ordered to lie still for hours at a time. The new flesh had to be kept extremely supple and clean. Special air filters were brought in to remove particles that might pollute her. Nurses hovered around the clock with treatments and injections and lotions and baths that made her cry out in terrible pain. She couldn’t have left even if she’d wanted to. Then, the pregnancy. She was restricted to total bed rest, bandaged and unbandaged constantly. Four months into the pregnancy, Mr. Dickinson… passed on, and she… It was a safe place for her. She couldn’t leave. Surely that’s obvious. So in a sense it’s completely logical, isn’t it? The way she is. She’s gravitated to her safe place. You see that, don’t you, Doctor?”

“I do. But the challenge now is to find out what’s safe for Melissa.”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.” Avoiding my glance.

I called the waiter over and ordered another espresso. When it arrived, along with more hot water for Dutchy, he wrapped his hands around his teacup but didn’t drink. As I took a sip he said, “Forgive my presumption, Doctor, but what, in your educated opinion, is the prognosis? For Melissa.”

“Given family cooperation, I’d say good. She’s motivated and bright and has a lot of insight for someone her age. But it’s going to take time.”

“Yes, of course. Doesn’t anything worthwhile?”

Suddenly he pressed forward, hands flapping, fingers wiggling. An odd bit of fluster for such a staid man. I smelled bay rum and shrimp. For a moment I thought he was going to grab my fingers. But he stopped himself abruptly, as if at an electrified fence.

“Please help her, Doctor. I pledge everything in my power to aid your treatment.”

His hands were still in the air. He noticed it and gave a look of chagrin. Ten fingers plummeted to the table like gun-shot ducks.

“You’re very devoted to this family,” I said.

He winced and looked away, as if I’d exposed some secret vice.

“As long as she comes in, I’ll treat her, Mr. Dutchy. What you can do to help is tell me everything I need to know.”

“Yes, of course. Is there something else?”

“McCloskey. What does she know about him?”

“Nothing!”

“She mentioned his name.”

“That’s all he is to her- a name. Children hear things.”

“Yes, they do. And she’s heard plenty- she knows he attacked her mother with acid because he didn’t like her. What else has she been told about him?”

“Nothing. Truly. As I said, children overhear- but he’s not a topic of conversation in our household.”

“Mr. Dutchy, in lieu of accurate information, children make up their own facts. It would be best for Melissa to understand what happened to her mother.”

His knuckles were white around the cup. “What are you suggesting, sir?”

“That someone sit down and talk with Melissa. Explain to her why McCloskey had Mrs. Dickinson attacked.”

He relaxed conspicuously. “Explain why. Yes, yes, I can see your point. There’s just one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“Nobody knows why. The bastard never let on and nobody knows. Now if you’ll excuse me, Doctor, I really must be going.”

5

On Monday, Melissa was in a great mood, cooperative and polite, no more testing of limits, no remnants of the last session’s power struggle. But reserved, less eager to talk. Asking if she could draw instead.

The typical new patient.

As if all that had happened till now had been some kind of probation and this was the real beginning.

She started with the same kind of benign productions she’d presented to me during our first session, then progressed quickly to deeper pigments, sunless skies, patches of gray, foreboding images.

She sketched sad-looking animals, anemic gardens, forlorn children in static poses, flitting from subject to subject. But by the second half of the session she found a theme that she stayed with: a series of houses without doors or windows. Bulky, drunkenly listing, visceroid structures fashioned of painstakingly rendered stone and set amidst groves of skeletal trees under a gloomy, crosshatched sky.

Several sheets later she added gray shapes approaching the houses. Gray that turned to black, and became human. Men-shapes wearing hats and long coats and bearing lumpy sacks.

Drawing with such fury that she ripped the paper. Starting over.

Pencils and crayons diminished to nubs, consumed like kindling. Every finished product was shredded with glee. She worked that way for three weeks straight. Leaving the office without comment, at session’s end, marching like a little soldier.

By the fourth week she began to round out the last ten or fifteen minutes with silent stretches of game playing: Chutes and Ladders, Crazy Eights, Go Fish. No conversation. Competing with great determination and little apparent pleasure.

Sometimes Dutchy brought her to the office, but increasingly it was Hernandez, who still regarded me with a jaundiced eye. Then other chaperons began to appear: a series of dark, lean youths- young men who smelled of work-sweat and looked so alike that, in my mind, they became interchangeable. I learned from Melissa they were Hernandez’s five sons.

Alternating with them was a big, doughy woman about Dutchy’s age with tightly braided hair and cheeks like wind-bellows. The owner of the deep Gallic voice. Madeleine, the cook/maid. Invariably, she arrived sweating and looking fatigued.

All of them slipped away the moment Melissa stepped over the threshold, returning to pick her up precisely at session’s end. Their punctuality- and avoidance of eye contact- smacked of Dutchy’s tutelage. Dutchy, the few times he showed up, was the most adroit at escape, not even stepping into the waiting room. No follow-up on my request to collect data. I should have been resentful.

But as time went on, it bothered me less and less.

Because Melissa seemed to be getting better. Without him. Without any of them. Ten weeks since therapy had started and she was a different child, unburdened, conspicuously calm, no more kneading, no more pacing. Allowing herself to smile. Loosening up as she played. Laughing at my repertoire of grade-school jokes. Acting like a kid. And though she continued to resist talking about her fears- about anything substantive- her drawings had become less frantic, the sack-men were vanishing. Windows and doors sprouted like buds on the stone faces of houses that now stood plumb-straight.

Drawings that she preserved and presented to me with pride.

Progress? Or just a seven-year-old putting on a happy face for her therapist’s sake?

Knowing what she was like outside the office would have helped my assessment. But those who could tell me shunned me as if I were a virus.

Even Eileen Wagner was out of the picture. I’d phoned her office several times and gotten her answering service, despite being careful to call during business hours. Slow practice, I supposed. She was probably moonlighting to make ends meet.

I called the Medical Staff Office at Western Pediatrics to find out if she had another job. They had nothing else listed. I phoned her office again, left messages that went unanswered.

Strange, considering the dedication she’d shown in arranging the referral, but everything related to this case smacked of strange, and I’d gotten used to it.

Remembering what Eileen had told me about Melissa’s fulminating school phobia, I asked Melissa the name of her school, looked up the number, and called it. Presenting myself as her doctor and not clarifying when the clerk assumed pediatrician, I asked to speak with Melissa’s teacher- a Mrs. Vera Adler, who confirmed that Melissa had missed a good deal of school early in the semester but since then her attendance had been perfect and her “social life” seemed better.

“Was she having social problems, Mrs. Adler?”

“I wouldn’t say that, no. I mean, she was never a problem of any sort, Doctor. But she wasn’t the most outgoing child- kind of shy. Off in her own world. Now she mixes more. Was she ill before, Doctor?”

“Just the usual stuff,” I said. “Just following up.”

“Well, she’s doing fine. We were starting to worry, she was absent so much, but she’s fine now. A very nice, extremely bright little girl- she tests out on the Iowa at the ninety-ninth percentile. We’re so glad she’s gotten adjusted…”

I thanked her and hung up, heartened. Said to hell with the grown-ups and continued to do my job.

By the fourth month of treatment, Melissa was treating the office as if it were a second home. Sauntering in smiling, making a beeline for the drawing table. She knew every cranny, could tell when a book had been moved from its usual place, was quick to put it back. Restoring. Showing an unusual eye for detail that jibed with the perceptual sensitivity Dutchy had described.

A child whose senses ran on full throttle. For her, life would never be boring. Could it ever be tranquil?

As the fifth month began she announced she was ready to talk again. Informing me that she wanted to be a team- just like I’d said at the beginning.

“Sure. What would you like to work on?”

“The dark.”

I rolled up my sleeves, ready to muster every kernel of wisdom I’d gathered since grad school. First I taught her to recognize the physical warning signs of anxiety- how she felt when the fear came on. Then I trained her in deep relaxation that evolved into full-blown hypnosis because of her ease at drifting into imagery. She learned self-hypnosis in a single session, could sink into trance within seconds. I supplied her with finger signals she could use to communicate while under, and finally began the desensitization process.

Seating her in a chair, I told her to close her eyes and imagine herself sitting in the dark. A dark room. Watching as her body grew taut and her index finger popped up, I warded off the tension with suggestions of deep calm and well-being. When she’d relaxed once more, I had her return to the dark room. On/off, over and over again, until she could tolerate the image. After a week or so, she’d mastered the imaginary darkness and was ready to tackle the real enemy.

I drew the outer office drapes and manipulated the light-switch rheostat, getting her accustomed to gradually increasing dimness. Stretching the time that she sat in partial darkness and reacting to evidence of tension with instructions for deeper and deeper relaxation.

Eleven sessions into the treatment, I was able to pull the blackout drapes closed, plunging both of us into total darkness. Counting the seconds out loud and homing in on the sound of her breathing. Ready to move in at the merest catch or quickening, determined she’d never experience prolonged anxiety.

Rewarding each success with high praise and low art- cheap plastic toys that I bought in bulk at the five-and-dime. They thrilled her.

By the end of the month, she could sit in blackness- which sometimes made me lose my balance- for an entire session, free of tension, chatting about school.

Soon, she was as nocturnal as a bat. I suggested it might be a good time to work on her sleep. She smiled and agreed.

I was especially eager, because this was my bailiwick. During my internship I’d been presented with several cases of children with chronic night terrors and had been impressed with the level of disruption the episodes caused in kids and their families. But none of the psychologists or psychiatrists at the hospital knew how to treat the disorder. Officially, there was no treatment other than tranquilizers and sedatives whose effects were unpredictable in children.

I went to the hospital library, chased down references, found plenty of theory but nothing about treatment. Frustrated, I sat for a long time thinking and decided to try something outlandish: operant conditioning. Bald behavior therapy. Reward the children for not having terrors and see what happened.

Simple-minded- almost crude. Theoretically, it made no sense. As the senior staff was quick to inform me over their fuming pipes. How could unconscious behavior- arousal from profoundly deep sleep- be consciously manipulated? What could voluntary conditioning accomplish in the face of hard-wired deviance?

But research had emerged recently that suggested greater voluntary control over body function than had ever been imagined: patients learning how to raise and lower skin temperature and blood pressure, even mask severe pain. At Psychiatric Case Conference, I asked for permission to try to decondition night terrors, arguing that there was nothing to lose. A lot of head-shaking and words of discouragement, but consent was granted.

It worked. All my patients got better and stayed better. The senior staff started implementing my plan with their patients and achieved similar results. The chief psychologist told me to write it up for a scientific journal, listing him as co-author. I sent the article in, overcame skeptical reviewers with columns of numbers and statistical tests, and got published. Within a year other therapists had begun to replicate my findings. I received requests for reprints and phone calls from all over the world, was asked to give lectures.

Had been doing just that the day Eileen Wagner had approached. It was the lecture that had led me to Melissa.

And now Melissa was ready to be treated by the expert. But there was a problem: The technique-my technique- depended upon family cooperation. Someone needed to monitor the patient’s sleep pattern precisely.

I buttonholed Dutchy on a Friday afternoon, before he had a chance to dash away. He gave a resigned look and said, “What is it, Doctor?”

I handed him a pad of graph paper and two sharpened pencils and, adopting the demeanor of a full professor, gave him his orders: Before bedtime, Melissa was to practice relaxation. He wasn’t to badger or remind her; it would be her responsibility. His job was to record the occurrence and frequency of night terrors. Nights without terrors were to be rewarded the following morning with one of the trinkets she seemed to love so much. Nights following terrors were not to be commented on.

“But, Doctor,” he said, “she’s not having them.”

“Not having what?”

“The terrors. Her sleep’s been perfectly calm for weeks. The bed-wetting’s also ceased.”

I looked over at Melissa. She’d stepped behind him. Half a small face peeked out. Enough for me to see the smile.

Pure joy. Reveling in her secret, as if it were confection.

That made sense. The way she’d been brought up, secrets were the coin of the realm.

“The change has really been quite… remarkable,” Dutchy was saying. “That’s why I didn’t feel it was necessary to-”

I said, “I’m really proud of you, Melissa.”

“I’m proud of you, Dr. Delaware,” she said, starting to giggle. “We’re an excellent team.

***

She continued to get better more rapidly than science could explain. Leapfrogging over my clinical games plans.

Healing herself.

Magic, one of my wiser supervisors had once said. Sometimes they’ll get better and you won’t know why. Before you’ve even started doing what you think is so goddam clever and hotshot scientific. Don’t fight it. Just put it down to magic. It’s as good an explanation as any.

She made me feel magical.

We never got into the topics I’d thought essential to explore: death, injury, loneliness. A Mikoksi with acid.

Despite the frequency of sessions, her chart was thin- I had very little to record. I began to wonder if I was functioning as anything more than a high-priced babysitter, told myself there were worse things to be. And, faced with the onslaught of difficult cases that seemed to grow each month as my practice burgeoned, I was thankful for the chance to be passive and magical for forty-five minutes a day, three times a week.

After eight months she informed me that all her fears were gone. Risking her wrath, I suggested reducing our time together to two sessions a week. She agreed so readily that I knew she’d been thinking the same thing.

Nevertheless, I expected a few backward steps as the loss sank in and she attempted to buy herself time and attention. It never happened, and at year’s end she was down to one session per week. The quality of the sessions changed, too. More casual. Lots of game-playing, no drama.

Therapy winding itself down. Triumph. I thought Eileen Wagner would like to know, made one more attempt to reach her, got a disconnected-number recording. Called the hospital and learned she’d closed her practice, resigned from the staff, left no forwarding address.

Puzzling. But she wasn’t my concern. And one less report to write wasn’t something I’d mourn.

For such a complicated case, it had turned out surprisingly simple.

Patient and doctor, slaying demons.

What could be purer?

The checks from Fiduciary First Trust kept coming, three figures at a shot.

The week of her ninth birthday, she arrived with a gift. I had none for her- had decided long ago never to buy patients anything. But she didn’t seem to mind and glowed from the act of giving.

A gift too big for her to carry. Sabino brought it into my office.

Massive basket of crepe-paper-wrapped fruit, cheeses, wine samples, tins of caviar, smoked oysters and trout, chestnut paste, jars of preserves and compotes, from a gourmet shop in Pasadena.

Inside was a card.

TO DOCTOR DELAWARE, LOVE, MELISSA D.

On the reverse side was a drawing of a house. The best she’d ever done- carefully shaded, lots of windows and doors.

“This is beautiful, Melissa. Thank you very much.”

“Welcome.” Smiling, but her eyes had filled with tears.

“What’s the matter, hon?”

“I want…”

She turned around and faced one of the bookcases, hugging herself.

“What is it, Melissa?”

“I want… It’s time maybe… to… for no more…”

She trailed off into silence. Shrugged. Kneaded her hands.

“Are you saying you want to stop coming for sessions?”

Multiple rapid nods.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, Melissa. You’ve done great. I’m really proud of you. So if you want to try it on your own, I understand and I think it’s terrific. And you don’t have to worry- I’ll always be here if you need me.”

She whipped around and faced me.

“I’m nine years old, Dr. Delaware. I think I’m ready to handle things on my own.”

“I think you are, too. And don’t worry about hurting my feelings.”

She started to cry.

I went to her, hugged her. She put her head against my chest and sobbed.

“I know it’s hard,” I said. “You’re worried about hurting my feelings. Probably been worried about that for a long time.”

Wet nods.

“That’s very kind of you, Melissa. I appreciate your caring about my feelings. But don’t worry- I’m fine. Sure, I’ll miss seeing you, but I’ll always keep you in my mind. And just because you stop coming for regular sessions doesn’t mean we can’t stay in touch. Over the phone. Or by writing letters. You can even come in to see me when there’s nothing bothering you. Just to say hi.”

“Do other patients do that?”

“Sure.”

“What’re their names?”

Smiling mischievously.

We both laughed.

I said, “The thing that’s most important to me, Melissa, is how well you’ve done. How you’ve taken charge over your fears. I’m really impressed.”

“I really feel I can handle things,” she said, drying her eyes.

“I’m sure you can.”

“I can,” she repeated, looking over at the big basket. “Have you ever had chestnut paste? It’s kind of weird- doesn’t taste like roasted chestnuts at all…”

***

The following week, I phoned her. Dutchy answered. I asked how she was doing. He said, “Very well indeed, Doctor. Let me get her for you.” I couldn’t be sure, but I thought he sounded friendly.

Melissa came on the line, polite but distant. Letting me know she was okay, would call me if she needed to come in. She never did.

I called a couple of more times. She sounded distracted and eager to get off the phone.

A few weeks later I was doing my books, reached her ledger sheet, and realized I’d been paid in advance for ten sessions I hadn’t conducted. I wrote out a check and mailed it to San Labrador. The next day a manila envelope arrived at the office by messenger. Inside was my check, in three neatly torn pieces, along with a sheet of scented stationery.

Dear Dr. Delaware,

With much gratitude,

Faithfully yours,

Gina Dickinson

Same fine graceful hand she’d used to promise me, two years ago, that she’d be in touch.

I wrote another check for exactly the same amount, made it out to Western Pediatrics Toy Fund, went down to the lobby, and posted it. Knowing I was doing it for myself as much as for the kids who’d get the toys, and telling myself I had no damn right to feel noble.

Then I took the elevator back up to my office and got ready for my next patient.

6

It was one in the morning when I put the file away. Reminiscing was strenuous exercise, and fatigue had enveloped me. I hobbled to bed, slept fitfully, did a good impression of waking at seven, and marched into the shower. A few minutes after I’d dressed, the bell rang. I went to the door and opened it.

Milo stood out on the terrace, hands in his pockets, wearing a yellow golf shirt with two wide horizontal green stripes, tan chinos, and high-top basketball shoes that had once been white. His black hair was longer than I’d ever seen it, the forelock completely hiding the brow, the sideburns nearly at jaw level. His pocked, lumpy face was flecked with three days’ worth of patchy beard and his green eyes seemed filmed over- the normally startling hue dulled to the color of very old grass.

He said, “The good news is at least now you lock it. The bad news is you open it without checking to see who the hell’s out there.”

“What makes you think I didn’t check?” I said, standing aside and letting him in.

“Latency of response from final footstep to latch-turn. Powers of detection.” He tapped his temple and headed straight for the kitchen.

“Good morning, Detective. Leisure becomes you.”

He grunted and didn’t break step.

I said, “What’s up?”

“What should be up?” he called back, face already in the fridge.

Another bona fide random drop-in. They were growing more frequent.

Terminal doldrums.

Halfway into his punishment- six months’ suspension from the force without pay. The most the department could hand out short of canning him. The department hoping he’d learn to enjoy civilian life and never come back. The department deluding itself.

He scrounged for a while, found rye bread, lox spread, and milk, located a knife and a plate, and began preparing himself some breakfast.

“What are you staring at?” he said. “Never seen a guy cook before?”

I went to get dressed. When I came back he was standing at the counter, eating spread on toast and drinking milk out of the carton. He’d put on more weight- his belly approached sumo-status, meloning the nylon shirt.

“Got a busy day planned?” he said. “Thought we might go down to Rancho and shoot some golf balls.”

“Didn’t know you golfed.”

“I don’t. But a guy needs a hobby, right?”

“Sorry, I’m working this morning.”

“Oh, yeah? Need me to leave?”

“No, not patients. I’m doing some writing.”

“Ahh,” he said, giving a dismissing wave. “I meant real work.”

“It’s real work for me.”

“What, the old blockaroo?”

I nodded.

He said, “Want me to do it for you?”

“Do what?”

“Write your paper.”

“Right.”

“No, I’m serious. Scribbling always came easy for me. That’s why I went as far as the master’s- God knows it wasn’t all the academic shit they shoved at me. Not much flair to my prose, but it was… workmanlike, if a bit pedestrian. In the words of my former academic adviser.”

He crunched toast. Crumbs cascaded down his shirtfront. He made no effort to brush them off.

I said, “Thanks, Milo, but I’m not ready for a ghostwriter yet.” I went to make coffee.

“Whatsamatter?” he said with a full mouth. “Don’t trust me?”

“This is scientific writing. The Hale shooting for a psych journal.”

“So?”

“So we’re talking dry. Maybe a hundred pages of dry.”

“Big deal,” he said. “No worse than your basic homicide file.” He used a crescent of rye crust to tick his fingers: “Roman Numeral One: Synopsis of Crime. Roman Numeral Two: Chronological Narrative. Roman Numeral Three: Victim Information. Roman-”

“I get the point.”

He shoved the crust in his mouth. “The key to excellent report writing,” he said between chews, “is to take every bit of passion out of it. Use an extra heaping portion of superfluously extraneous tautological redundancies in order to make it mind-numbingly boring. So that when one’s superior officers read it, they zone out and start skimming and maybe don’t notice the fact that one has been spinning one’s wheels since the body turned up and hasn’t solved a goddam thing. Now tell me, is that so different from what you’re doing?”

I laughed. “Up till now I’ve been telling myself I was after the truth. Thanks for setting me straight.”

“No problem. It’s my job.”

“Speaking of job, how’d it go downtown?”

He gave a very long, very dark look. “More of the same. Desk jockeys with smiling faces. This time they brought in the department shrink.”

“Thought you refused counseling.”

“They got around it by calling it a stress evaluation. Terms of the penalty- read the small print.”

He shook his head. “All those greasy-faced fuckers talking real softly and slowly, as if I was senile. Inquiring about my adjustment. My stress level. Sharing their concern. Ever notice how people who talk about sharing never really do? They were also careful to let me know that all my medical bills had been picked up by the department- therefore the department had received copies of all my lab tests and there was some concern over my cholesterol level, triglycerides, whatever. Was I really feeling up to returning to active duty?”

He scowled. “What a bunch of princes, huh? I smiled back and said it was funny how they never gave a shit about my stress level or triglycerides when I was out there doing the job.”

“How’d they react to that bit of charm?”

“More smiles, then this greasy silence you could deep-fry potatoes in. Mind-tripping. No doubt the asshole shrink prepped them- no offense. But that’s the military mind: Destroy the individual.”

He looked at the milk carton, said, “Ah, low-fat. That’s good. Here’s to triglycerides.”

I filled the coffee-maker carafe with water, spooned Kenyan into the hatch.

“Give the assholes one thing,” he said. “They’re getting more assertive. This time they came right out and talked pension. Dollars and cents. Actuarial tables, how much more it added up to when you threw in the interest I could earn if I invested wisely. How nice life could be with what I had coming after fourteen years. When I didn’t slaver and snap, they dropped the carrot and picked up the stick, started hinting around about how the pension was by no means a foregone conclusion, given the circumstances. Blah blah blah. How timing was of the essence. Blah blah blah.”

He started to work on another piece of bread.

I said, “Bottom line?”

“I let them blah on for a while, then got up, said I had a pressing engagement, and left.”

“Well,” I said, “if you ever do decide to quit, there’s always the diplomatic corps.”

“Hey,” he said, “I’ve had it to here.” Running a finger across his throat. “Give me the half-year boot, okay. Take my gun and shield and pay, okay. But just let me do my time in peace and quiet, and cool it with the fucking follow-ups. All that phony sensitivity.”

He drank and ate. “Course, guess I can’t expect much better, given the circumstances.” He smiled.

“A-plus in reality testing, Milo.”

He said, “Assaulting a superior officer.” Bigger smile. “Has a nice ring to it, wouldn’t you say?”

“You forgot the crucial part. On TV.”

He grinned, started to drink more milk but was smiling too broadly and lowered the carton. “What the hell, this is the media age, right? The chief wears pancake when he plays meet-the-press. I gave them some soundbites they’ll never forget.”

“That you did. What’s the situation with Frisk?”

“Word has it his cute little nose has healed quite nicely. The new teeth look almost as good as the old ones- amazing what they can do with plastic nowadays, huh? But he is gonna look a little different. Less Tom Selleck, more… Karl Malden. Which isn’t bad for a superior officer, right? That shopworn look- implied wisdom and experience.”

“He back on duty?”

“Nooo. Seems Kenny-poo’s stress level is still pretty high, he’s taking a long recuperation. But he’ll be back, eventually. Kicked upstairs, where he can screw up on a higher level and do systematic damage.”

“He’s the assistant chief’s son-in-law, Milo. You’re lucky to still be on the force.”

He put down the carton and glared. “Don’t you think if they could have shafted me, they would have? They’re in a one-down position and they know it- that’s why they’re going the weasel route.”

He slammed his big hand down on the counter. “Asshole used me for fucking bait. The lawyer Rick had me talk to told me I had grounds for a major-league civil suit, could have taken it to the papers and kept it there for months. He would have loved it- the shyster. Big contingency fee. Rick wanted me to do it, too. On principle. But I refused because that wasn’t what it was about- bunch of goddam shysters quibbling about technicalities for ten years. This was one-on-one; it needed to be handled one-on-one. Going the TV route was my extra insurance- couple of million witnesses, so no one could say it didn’t happen the way it did. That’s why I hit him after he said what a great hero I was and gave me the commendation. So no one could say it was sour grapes. The department owes me, Alex. They should be grateful all I did was mess up his face. And if Frisk is smart, he’ll be grateful, too- stay out of my face. Permanently. Fuck his family connections. He’s lucky I didn’t rip his lungs out and toss them at the cameras.”

His eyes had cleared and his complexion had deepened to hot pink. With his hair over his forehead and thick lips, he resembled a disgruntled gorilla.

I applauded.

He rose a few inches, stared at me, then started laughing. “Ah, nothing like adrenaline to make the day take on a rosy glow. Sure you don’t want to golf?”

“Sorry. I really have to get the paper done and there’s a patient coming at noon. And, frankly, knocking balls around the green isn’t my idea of recreation, Milo.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “No aerobic benefit. Bet your triglycerides are just peachy.”

I shrugged. The coffee was done. I poured two cups, gave one to him.

“So,” I said, “what else have you been doing to fill the time?”

He gave an expansive gesture and put on a brogue: “Oh, it’s been just grand, lad. Needlepoint, papier-mÂchÉ, decoupage, crocheting. Little schooners and yachts made of ice-cream sticks and glitter- there’s a wonderful world of crafts out there just waiting to be explored.” He drank coffee. “It’s been shit. Worse than a desk job. At first I thought I’d get into gardening- grab some sun, a little exercise. Back to the earth- to my roots, praise Hibernia.”

“Planning to grow potatoes?”

He chuckled. “Planning to raise anything I could, other than hell. Only problem was, Rick brought in this landscape designer last year, redid the whole yard with all this southwestern shit- cactus, succulents, low-moisture ground cover. So we could cut our water usage, be ecologically sound. So much for Farmer Spud. So okay, scratch that, I figured I’d tinker around the house- fix everything that needed fixing. I used to be handy- when I worked construction in college I learned all the trades. And when I lived by myself I used to do all of it: plumbing, wiring, whatever. The landlord loved me. Only problem with that plan is, there’s nothing to fix. I hadn’t been around the house long enough to realize it, but after nagging me for a year or so, Rick finally took care of everything. Seems he found this handyman- fellow from Fiji, former patient. Cut himself with a power saw, nearly lost a couple of fingers. Rick sewed him up in the E.R., saved the fingers, and purchased eternal gratitude: The guy works for us basically for free, on call twenty-four hours a day. So unless he slips with the saw again, my expertise is not in demand. Scratch Mr. Fixit. What does that leave? Shopping? Cooking? Between the E.R. and the Free Clinic, Rick’s never home to eat, so I grab whatever and stuff my face. Once in a while I go out to a civilian range in Culver City and shoot. I’ve been through my record collection twice and read more bad books than I ever want to think about.”

“What about volunteer work?”

He clapped his hands over his ears and grimaced. When he removed them, I said, “What?”

“Heard it before. Every day, from the altruistic Dr. Silverman. The Free Clinic AIDS group, homeless kids, Skid Row Mission, whatever. Find a cause, Milo, and stick with it. Only problem is, I feel too goddam mean. Coiled. Like someone better not say the wrong thing to me or they’re gonna end up sucking the sidewalk. This… hot feeling in my gut- sometimes I wake up with it; sometimes it just comes on. And don’t tell me it’s post-traumatic stress syndrome, ’cause giving it a name doesn’t do squat. I’ve been there before- after the war- and I know nothing but time is gonna bleed it out of me. Meantime, I don’t want to be around too many people- especially people with heavy-duty misery. I’ve got no sympathy to give. I’d end up telling them to shape up and get their goddam lives in order.”

“Time heals,” I said, “but time can be sped along.”

He gave me an incredulous look. “What? Counseling?

“There are worse things.”

He slapped his chest with both hands. “Okay, here I am. Counsel me.”

I was silent.

“Right,” he said, and looked at the wall clock. “Anyway, I’m gone. Gonna hit little white balls and pretend they’re something else.”

He began barreling out of the kitchen. I held out an arm and he stopped.

“How about dinner,” I said. “Tonight. I should be free by seven or so.”

He said, “Charity meals are for soup kitchens.”

“You’re a charmer,” I said, and lowered my arm.

“What, no date tonight?”

“No date.”

“What about Linda?”

“Linda’s still in Texas.”

“Oh. Thought she was due back last week.”

“She was. The stay’s been extended. Her father.”

“The heart?”

I nodded. “He’s gotten worse. Bad enough to keep her there indefinitely.”

“Sorry to hear it. When you talk to her, give her my best. Tell her I hope he mends.” His anger had given way to sympathy. I wasn’t sure that was an improvement.

“Will do,” I said. “Have fun at Rancho.”

He took a step, stopped. “Okay, so this hasn’t been party-time for you either. Sorry.”

“I’m doing fine, Milo. And the offer wasn’t charity. God knows why, but I thought dinner would be nice. Two guys shooting the bull, all that buddy stuff, like in the beer commercials.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Dinner. Okay, I can always eat.” He patted his gut. “And if you’re still struggling with your term paper by tonight, bring a draft along. Uncle Milo will render sage editorial input.”

“Fine,” I said, “but in the meantime why don’t you think about getting yourself a real hobby?”

7

After he left I sat down to write. For no apparent reason it went more smoothly than ever before, and noon arrived quickly, heralded by the second doorbell ring of the day.

This time I squinted through the peephole. What looked back at me was the face of a stranger, but not foreign: remnants of the child I’d once known merging with a photo from a twenty-year-old newspaper clipping. I realized that at the time of the attack her mother hadn’t been that much older than Melissa was now.

I opened the door and said, “Hello, Melissa.”

She seemed startled, then smiled. “Dr. Delaware! You haven’t changed at all!”

We shook hands.

“Come on in.”

She entered the house and stood with her hands folded in front of her.

The transition from girl to woman appeared nearly complete, and the evidence pointed to a graceful process. She had fashion-model cheekbones that asserted themselves through flawless lightly tanned skin. Her hair had darkened to a sun-streaked light brown and it hung, poker-straight and gleaming, to her waist. The straight-edge bangs had given way to a side part and flip. Below naturally arched brows her gray-green eyes were huge and wide-set. A young Grace Kelly.

A miniature Grace Kelly. She was barely five feet tall, with a cinch-waist and tiny bones. Big gold hoop earrings dangled from each shell-like ear. She carried a small lambskin handbag, wore a blue pinpoint button-down shirt, a denim skirt that ended an inch above her knees, and maroon penny loafers without socks. Maybe Preppy still ruled in San Labrador.

I showed her to a chair in the living room. She sat, crossed her legs at the ankles, hugged her knees, and looked around. “You have a very nice home, Dr. Delaware.”

I wondered what my eighteen-hundred square feet of redwood and glass really looked like to her. The castle she’d grown up in probably had rooms bigger. Thanking her, I took a seat and said, “It’s good to see you, Melissa.”

“Good to see you, too, Dr. Delaware. And thanks so much for doing it on short notice.”

“My pleasure. Any trouble finding the address?”

“No. I used my Thomas Guide- I just learned about Thomas Guides. They’re terrific.”

“Yes, they are.”

“Amazing how so much information can go in one book, isn’t it?”

“Sure is.”

“I’ve never really been up to these canyons. It’s quite pretty.”

Smile. Shy, but poised. Proper. A proper young lady. Was it for my benefit? Did she metamorphose into something giggly and ill-mannered when she and her friends hit the mall?

Did she go to the mall?

Did she have friends?

The ignorance born of nine years struck home.

Starting from scratch.

I smiled back and, trying not to be obviously analytic, studied her.

Posture straight, maybe a little stiff. Understandable, considering the circumstances. But no obvious signs of anxiety. Her hands remained motionless around her knees. No kneading, no evidence of chafing.

I said, “Well. It’s been a long time.”

“Nine years,” she said. “Pretty unbelievable, huh?”

“Sure is. I don’t expect you to sum up all nine of them. But I am kind of curious about what you’ve been up to.”

“Just the usual,” she said, shrugging. “School, mostly.”

She bent forward, straightened her arms, and hugged her knees tighter. A sheet of hair fell across one eye. She brushed it aside and checked out the room again.

I said, “Congratulations on graduating.”

“Thanks. I got accepted to Harvard.”

“Fantastic. Double congratulations.”

“I was surprised they took me.”

“I’ll bet there was never any doubt in their minds.”

“That’s nice of you to say, Dr. Delaware, but I think I was pretty lucky.”

I said, “Straight A’s or close to it?”

Return of the shy smile. Her hands remained clamped on her knees. “Not in gym.”

“Well, shame on you, young lady.”

The smile widened, but maintaining it seemed to take effort. She kept looking around the room, as if searching for something.

I said, “So when do you leave for Boston?”

“I don’t know… They want me to notify them within two weeks if I’m coming. So I guess I’d better decide.”

“That mean you’re thinking of not going?”

She licked her lips and nodded and brought her gaze to rest, meeting mine. “That’s what- that’s the problem I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Whether or not to go to Harvard?”

“What going to Harvard means. In terms of Mother.” She licked her lips again, coughed, and began rocking, very gently. Then she freed her hands, picked up a cut-crystal paperweight from the coffee table, and peered through it, squinting. Studying the refraction of the gold-dusted southern light streaming in through the dining room windows.

I said, “Is your mother opposed to your going away?”

“No, she’s- She says she wants me to. She hasn’t objected at all- as a matter of fact, she’s been very encouraging. Says she really wants me to go.”

“But you’re worried about her anyway.”

She put down the paperweight, moved to the edge of her chair, and held out her hands, palms up. “I’m not sure she can handle it, Dr. Delaware.”

“Being away from you?”

“Yes. She’s… It’s…” Shrug. She began wringing her hands. That saddened me more than it should have.

I said, “Is she still- Is her situation the same? In terms of her fears?”

“No. I mean, she still has it. The agoraphobia. But she’s better. Because of her treatment. I finally convinced her to get treatment and it’s helped.”

“Good.”

“Yes. It is good.”

“But you’re not sure treatment’s helped her enough to cope with being separated from you.”

“I don’t know. I mean, how can I be sure…?” She shook her head with a weariness that made her seem very old. Lowered her head and opened her bag. After fumbling for a few moments she drew out a newspaper article and handed it to me.

February of last year. A “Lifestyles” piece entitled “New Hope for Victims of Fears: Husband and Wife Team Fight Debilitating Phobias.”

She lifted the paperweight and began toying with it again. I read on.

The article was a profile of Leo Gabney, a Pasadena-based clinical psychologist, formerly of Harvard University, and his psychiatrist wife, Ursula Cunningham-Gabney, alumna and former staff member of that august institution. An accompanying photograph showed the two therapists sitting side by side at a table, facing a female patient. Only the back of the patient’s head was visible. Gabney’s mouth was open, in speech. His wife seemed to be looking at him out of the corner of her eye. Both doctors wore expressions of extreme earnestness. The caption read: DRS. LEO AND URSULA GABNEY COMBINE THEIR SKILLS TO WORK INTENSIVELY WITH “MARY,” A SEVERE AGORAPHOBIC. The last word had been circled in red.

I studied the picture. I knew Leo Gabney by reputation, had read everything he’d written, but had never met the man. The camera revealed him to be sixty or close to it, with bushy white hair, narrow shoulders, dark, drooping eyes behind heavy black-framed glasses, and a round, smallish face. He wore a white shirt and dark tie, had rolled his sleeves up to the elbow. His forearms were thin and bony- almost womanish. My mental image had been something more Herculean.

His wife was brunette and good-looking in a severe way; Hollywood would have cast her as the repressed spinster, ripe for awakening. She was dressed in a cowl-neck knit top with a paisley kerchief draped over one shoulder. A short perm fit nicely around her face. Glasses hung from a chain around her neck. She was young enough to be Leo Gabney’s daughter.

I looked up. Melissa was still turning the crystal. Pretending to be enthralled with the facets.

The knickknack defense.

I’d totally forgotten this particular knickknack. Antique French. A real find, rescued from the back shelves of a tiny curio shop in Leucadia. Robin and me… the amnesia defense.

I resumed reading. The article had the self-consciously laudatory tone of a p.r. release striving to sound like journalism. It recounted Leo Gabney’s pioneering work in the research and treatment of anxiety disorders. Cited his “landmark success treating Korean War G.I.’s for combat trauma when clinical psychology was still an infant science, pioneering research in frustration and human learning,” and tracing his career through three decades of animal and human studies at Harvard. Thirty years of prolific scientific writing.

No blockaroo for him.

Ursula Cunningham-Gabney was described as a former student of her husband’s and possessor of both a Ph.D. in psychology and an M.D.

“We joke,” said her husband, “that she’s a paradox.”

Both Gabneys had been tenured members of the staff of Harvard Medical School before relocating to southern California two years previously and establishing the Gabney Clinic. Leo Gabney explained the relocation as “a quest for a more relaxed life-style, as well as the chance to bring to the private sector our combined body of research and clinical skills.”

He went on to describe the collaborative nature of the Gabney approach:

“My wife’s medical training is especially useful in terms of detecting physical disorders, such as hyperthyroidism, that present symptoms similar to those of anxiety disorders. She’s also in a unique position to evaluate and prescribe some of the more recent- and superior- anti-anxiety drugs that have come along.”

“Several of the new medications look promising,” Ursula Cunningham-Gabney elaborated, “but none is sufficient in and of itself. Many physicians tend to view medication as a magic bullet and prescribe without carefully weighing cost-effectiveness. Our research has shown that the treatment of choice in debilitating anxiety disorders is clearly a combination of behavior and carefully monitored medication.”

“Unfortunately,” her husband added, “the typical psychologist is ignorant about drugs and, even if knowledgeable, unable to prescribe them. And the typical psychiatrist has little or no training in behavior therapy.”

Leo Gabney claims this has led to bickering between the professions and inadequate treatment for many patients with incapacitating conditions such as agoraphobia- a morbid fear of open spaces.

“Agoraphobics need treatment that is multimodal as well as creative. We don’t limit ourselves to the office. Go into the home, the workplace, wherever reality beckons.”

More red circles, around agoraphobia and the home.

The rest consisted of pseudonymous case histories, which I skimmed.

“Finished.”

Melissa put down the paperweight. “Have you heard of them?”

“I’ve heard of Leo Gabney. He’s very well known- has done a lot of very important research.”

I held out the clipping. She took it and put it back in her bag.

“When I saw this,” she said, “it just sounded right for Mother. I’d been looking for something- we’d started talking, Mother and I. About how she should do something about… her problem. Actually, we talked for years. I started bringing it up when I was fifteen- old enough to realize how much it was affecting her. I mean, I always knew she was… different. But when you grow up with someone, and the way they are is the only way you know, you get used to them.”

“True,” I said.

“But as I got older, started to read more psychology and understand more about people, I began to realize how hard it must be for her- that she was really suffering. And if I loved her, my obligation was to help her. So I started talking to her about it. At first she wouldn’t talk back, tried to change the subject. Then she insisted she was okay- I should just take care of myself. But I just kept at it, in small doses. Like after I’d done something good- gotten a really good grade or brought home an academic award- I’d bring it up. Letting her know I deserved to be taken seriously. Finally, she started to really talk. About how hard it was for her, how bad she felt not being a normal mother- how she’d always wanted to be like all the other mothers but that every time she tried to leave, the anxiety just got to her. More than just psychologically. Physical attacks. Not being able to breathe. Feeling as if she were going to die. How it trapped her, made her feel helpless and useless and guilty for not taking care of me.”

She gripped her knees again, rocked, stared at the paperweight, then back at me. “I told her that was ridiculous. She’d been a terrific mother. She cried and said she knew she hadn’t but that I’d turned out wonderful anyway. Despite her, not because of her. It hurt me to hear that and I started to cry, too. We held each other. She kept telling me over and over how sorry she was, and how glad she was that I was so much better than she was. That I would have a good life, get out and see things she’d never seen, do things she’d never done.”

She stopped, sucked in breath.

I said, “It must have been so hard for you. Hearing that. Seeing her pain.”

“Yes,” she said, letting loose a rush of tears.

I reached over, pulled a tissue out of the box. Handed it to her and waited until she composed herself.

“I told her,” she said, sniffling, “that I wasn’t better than she was, in any way whatsoever. That I was out in the world because I’d gotten help. From you. Because she’d cared enough about me to get me help.”

I thought of a child’s voice on a crisis line tape. Scented brush-off letters, calls unanswered.

“… that I cared about her and wanted her to get help. She said she knew she needed it but that she was beyond treatment, doubted anyone could help her. Then she started crying harder and said doctors scared her- she knew that was stupid and babyish, but her fear was overpowering. That she never even talked to you on the phone. That I really had gotten better despite her. Because I was strong and she was weak. I told her strength isn’t something you just have. It’s something you learn. That she was strong, too, in her own way. Living through everything she’d been through and still ending up a beautiful, kind person- because she is, Dr. Delaware! Even though she never got out and did the things other mothers did, I never cared. Because she was better than the other mothers. Nicer, kinder.”

I nodded and waited.

She said, “She feels so guilty, but really she was wonderful. Patient. Never grumpy. She never raised her voice. When I was little and couldn’t sleep- before you cured me- she’d hold me and kiss me and tell me over and over that I was wonderful and beautiful, the best little girl in the world, and that the future was my golden apple. Even if I kept her up all night. Even if I wet the bed and soaked her sheets, she’d just hold me. In the wet sheets. And tell me she loved me, that everything would be okay. That’s the kind of person she is and I wanted to help her- to give some of that kindness back.”

She buried her face in the tissue. It turned into a sodden lump and I gave her another.

After a while she dried her eyes and looked up. “Finally, after months of talking, after we’d both cried ourselves dry, I got her to agree that if I found the right doctor, she’d try. A doctor who would come to the house. But I didn’t do anything for a while because I had no idea where to find a doctor like that. I made a few calls, but the ones who phoned me back said they didn’t do house calls. I got the feeling they weren’t taking me seriously, because of my age. I even thought of calling you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know. I guess I was embarrassed. Pretty foolish, huh?”

“Not at all.”

“Anyway, then I read the article. It sounded perfect. I called their clinic and spoke to her- the wife. She said yes, they could help, but that I couldn’t arrange treatment for someone else. The patients themselves had to call to set it up. That they insisted upon that, only accepted patients who were motivated. She made it sound like applying to college- as if they got tons of applications but only took a few. So I talked to Mother, told her I’d found someone, gave her the number and told her to call. She got really scared- started to have one of her attacks.”

“What’s that like?”

“She turns pale and grabs her chest and begins breathing really hard and fast. Gasping, as if she can’t get any breath in. Sometimes she faints.”

“Pretty scary.”

“I guess,” she said. “For someone seeing it for the first time. But like I said, I’d grown up with it, so I knew she wasn’t in any danger. That probably sounds cruel but that’s the way it is.”

I said, “No, it doesn’t. You understood what was happening. Could put it in context.”

“Yes. Exactly. So I just waited until the attack was over- they usually don’t last more than a few minutes and then she gets really tired and goes to sleep for a couple of hours. But I wouldn’t let her sleep this time. I held her and kissed her and started talking to her, very quietly and calmly. About how the attacks were terrible, how I knew she felt terrible, but didn’t she want to try to get rid of them? Not to feel like that anymore? She started crying. And saying yes, she did want that. Yes, she would try, she promised, but not right now, she was too weak. So I let her off the hook, and nothing happened for weeks. Finally, my patience ran out. I went up to her room, dialed the number in front of her, asked for Dr. Ursula, and handed her the phone. And stood over her. Like this.”

Rising, she folded both arms over her chest and put on a stern look.

“I guess I caught her off guard, because she took the phone, began talking to Dr. Ursula. Doing a lot of listening and nodding, mostly, but at the end of it she’d made an appointment.”

She let her arms drop and sat back down.

“Anyway, that’s how it happened, and it seems to be helping her.”

“How long’s she been in treatment?”

“About a year- it’ll be a year this month.”

“Does she see both Gabneys?”

“At first they both came to the house. With a black bag and all sorts of equipment- I guess they were giving her a physical. Then only Dr. Ursula came, and all she brought was a notebook and a pen. She and Mother spent hours together up in Mother’s room- every day, even weekends. For weeks. Then finally they came downstairs, walked around the house. Talking. Like friends.”

Punctuating friends with just a hint of frown.

What they talked about I couldn’t tell you, because she- Dr. Ursula- was always careful to keep Mother away from everyone- the staff, me. Not by actually coming out and saying it- she just has a way of looking at you that lets you know you’re not supposed to be there.”

Another frown.

“Finally, after about a month, they went outside. To the grounds. Strolling. Did that for a long time- months- with no progress that I could see. Mother had always been able to do that by herself. Without treatment. That phase seemed to be going on forever and no one was telling me anything about what was going on. I began to wonder if they- if she knew what she was doing. If I’d done the right thing by bringing her into our home. The one time I tried to ask about it was pretty unpleasant.”

She stopped, wrung her hands.

I said, “What happened?”

“I caught up with Dr. Ursula at the end of a session, just as she was getting into her car, and asked her how Mother was doing. She just smiled and told me everything was going well. Clearly letting me know it was none of my business. Then she asked me if anything was troubling me- but not as if she cared. Not the way you’d say it. I felt she was putting me down- analyzing me. It was creepy. I couldn’t wait to get away from her!”

She’d raised her voice, was nearly shouting. Realized it and blushed and covered her mouth.

I gave a reassuring smile.

“But then afterward,” she said, “I could understand it. I guess. The need for confidentiality. I started to think back and remembered how it had been with my therapy. I was always asking you all those questions- about other kids- just to see if you’d break the secret. Testing you. And then I felt very good, very comforted, when you didn’t give in.” She smiled. “That was terrible, wasn’t it? Testing you like that.”

“A hundred percent normal,” I said.

She laughed. “Well, you passed the test, Dr. Delaware.” The blush deepened. She turned away. “You helped me a lot.”

“I’m glad, Melissa. Thanks for saying so.”

“Must be a pleasant job,” she said, “being a therapist. Getting to tell people they’re okay all the time. Not having to cause pain, like other doctors.”

“Sometimes it does get painful, but overall you’re right. It is a great job.”

“Then how come you don’t do it anymo- I’m sorry. That’s none of my business.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “No topic’s off limits here, as long as you can tolerate not always getting an answer.”

She laughed. “There you go, doing it again. Telling me I’m okay.”

“You are okay.”

She touched a finger to the paperweight, then retracted it. “Thank you. For everything you did for me. Not only did you get rid of my fears, you also showed me people can change- they can win. It’s hard to see that sometimes, when you’re stuck in the middle of something. I’ve thought of studying psychology myself. Maybe becoming a therapist.”

“You’d make a good one.”

“Do you really think so?” she said, facing me and brightening.

“Yes, I do. You’re smart. You care about people. And you’re patient- from what you’ve told me about getting your mother help, you have tremendous patience.”

“Well,” she said, “I love her. I don’t know if I’d be patient with someone else.”

“It would probably be easier, Melissa.”

“Yes, I guess that’s true. ’Cause to tell the truth, I didn’t feel patient while it was happening- all her resistance and stalling. There were times I even wanted to scream at her, tell her to just get up and change. But I couldn’t. She’s my mother. She’s always been wonderful to me.”

I said, “But now, after going to all the trouble of getting her into treatment, you have to watch her and Dr. Ursula stroll the grounds for months. With nothing happening. That really tries your patience.”

“It did! I was really starting to get skeptical. Then all of a sudden, things started to happen. Dr. Ursula got her outside the front gate. Just a few steps, down to the curb, and she had an attack when she got there. But it was the first time she’d been outside the walls since… the first time I’d ever seen her do it. And Dr. Ursula didn’t pull her back in because of the attack. She gave her some kind of medicine- in an inhaler, like they use for asthma- and made her stay out there until she’d calmed down. Then they did it again the next day, and again, and she kept having attacks- it was really hard to watch. But finally Mother was able to stand at the curb and be okay. After that, they started walking around the block. Arm in arm. Finally, a couple of months ago, Dr. Ursula got her to drive. In her favorite car- it’s this little Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, a ’54, but in perfect condition. Coachbuilt- custom-made. My father had it built to his specifications when he was in England. One of the first to have power steering. And tinted windows. Then he gave it to her. She’s always loved it. Sometimes she sat in it after it had been washed, with the engine off. But she never drove it. She must have said something to Dr. Ursula about its being her favorite, because the next thing I knew, the two of them were tooling around in it. Down the drive and right out the gates. She’s at the point where she can drive with someone else in the car. She drives to the clinic with Dr. Ursula or someone else with her- it’s not far, over in Pasadena. Maybe that wouldn’t sound too impressive. But when you think of where she was a year ago, it’s pretty fantastic, don’t you think?”

“I do. How often does she go to the clinic?”

“Twice a week. Monday and Thursday, for group therapy. With other women who have the same problem.”

She sat back, dry-eyed, smiling. “I’m so proud of her, Dr. Delaware. I don’t want to mess it up.”

“By going to Harvard?”

“By doing anything that would mess it up. I mean, I think of Mother as being on a scale- one of those balance scales. Fear on one side, happiness on the other. Right now it’s tipping toward happiness, but I can’t help thinking that any little thing could knock it the other way.”

“You see your mom as pretty fragile.”

“She is fragile! Everything she’s been through has made her fragile.”

“Have you talked to Dr. Ursula about the impact of your going away?”

“No,” she said, suddenly grim. “No, I haven’t.”

“I get the feeling,” I said, “that even though Dr. Ursula has helped your mother a lot, she’s still not your favorite person.”

“That’s true. She’s a very- she’s cold.”

“Is there anything else about her that bothers you?”

“Just what I said. About her analyzing me… I don’t think she likes me.”

“Why’s that?”

She shook her head. One of her earrings caught the light and flashed. “It’s just the… vibrations she gives off. I know that sounds… imprecise- but she just makes me feel uncomfortable. The way she was able to tell me to butt out without having to say it. So how can I approach her about something personal? All she’d do is put me down- I feel she wants to shut me out.”

“Have you tried to talk to your mother about this?”

“I talked to her about therapy a couple of times. She said Dr. Ursula was taking her through steps and she was climbing them slowly. That she was grateful to me for getting her into treatment but that now she had to be a big girl and do things for herself. I didn’t argue, didn’t want to do anything that would… ruin it.”

Wringing. Flipping her hair.

I said, “Melissa, are you feeling a little left out? By the treatment?”

“No, it’s not that at all. Sure, I’d like to know more- especially because of my interest in psychology. But that’s not what’s important to me. If that’s what it takes to work- all that secrecy- then I’m happy. Even if this is as far as it goes, it’s still major progress.”

“Do you have doubts it will go further?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “On a day-to-day basis it seems to go so slowly.” She smiled. “You see, Dr. Delaware, I’m not patient at all.”

“So even though your mother’s come a long way, you’re not convinced she’s gone far enough for you to be able to leave her.”

“Exactly.”

“And you feel frustrated not knowing more about her prognosis because of the way Dr. Ursula treats you.”

“Very frustrated.”

“What about Dr. Leo Gabney? Would you be more comfortable talking to him?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t know him at all. Like I said, he only showed up at the beginning, a real scientist type- walking very fast, writing things down, ordering his wife around. He’s the boss in that relationship.”

Following that insight with a smile.

I said, “Even though your mother says she wants you to go to Harvard, you’re not sure she can handle it. And you feel you can’t talk to anyone to find out if she can.”

She shook her head and gave a weak smile. “A quandary, I guess. Pretty dumb, huh?”

“Not at all.”

“There you go again,” she said. “Telling me I’m okay.”

Both of us smiled.

I said, “Who else is around to take care of your mother?”

“There’s the staff. And Don, I guess- that’s her husband.”

Dropping that nugget into the bucket, then draping it with a look of innocence.

But I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice. “When did she get married?”

“Just a few months ago.”

The hands began kneading.

“A few months,” I repeated.

She squirmed and said, “Six.”

Silence.

I said, “Want to tell me about it?”

She looked as if she didn’t. But she said, “His name is Don Ramp. He used to be an actor- never a big one, just a bit player. Cowboys and soldiers, that kind of thing. He owns a restaurant now. In Pasadena, not San Lab, because in San Lab you’re not allowed to sell liquor and he serves all kinds of beers and ales. That’s his specialty. Imported beers. And meat. Prime rib. Tankard and Blade, it’s called. Armor and swords all over the place. Like in old England. Kind of silly, actually, but for San Labrador it’s exotic.”

“How’d he and your mother meet?”

“You mean because she never leaves the house?”

“Yes.”

The hands kneaded faster. “That was my- I introduced them. I was at the Tankard with some friends, a school thing for some seniors. Don was there, greeting people, and when he found out who I was, he sat down and told me he’d known Mother. Years ago. Back in her days at the studio. The two of them had been on contract at the same time. He started asking these questions- about how she was doing. Talking on and on about what a wonderful person she’d been, so beautiful and talented. Telling me I was beautiful, too.” She snorted.

“You don’t think you’re beautiful?”

“Let’s be real, Dr. Delaware! Anyway, he seemed so nice and he was the first person I’d met who’d actually known Mother before, back in her Hollywood days. I mean, people in San Labrador don’t usually come from an entertainment background. At least they don’t admit it. One time another actor- a real star, Brett Raymond- wanted to move in, buy an old house and tear it down to build a new one, and there was all this talk about his money being dirty money because the movies were a Jewish business and Jewish money was dirty money, and Brett Raymond himself was really Jewish and tried to hide it- which I don’t even know if it’s true or not. Anyway, they- the zoning board- made his life so miserable with hearings and restrictions and whatever that he changed his mind and moved to Beverly Hills. And people said good, that’s where he belonged. So you can see how I wouldn’t meet too many movie people, and when Don started talking about the old days, I thought it was great. It was like finding a link to the past.”

I said, “It’s a bit of a leap from that to marriage.”

She gave a sour smile. “I invited him over- as a surprise for Mother. This was before she was getting treatment. I was looking for anything to get her going. Get her to socialize. And when he arrived he had three dozen red roses and a big bottle of Taittinger’s. I should have known then he had… plans. I mean, roses and champagne. One thing led to another. He started coming over more often. In the afternoon, before the Tankard opened. Bringing her steaks and more flowers and whatever. It became a regular thing- I just kind of got used to it. Then six months ago, just around the time she started to be able to leave the grounds, they announced they were getting married. Just like that. Brought in a judge and did it, at the house.”

“So he was seeing her when you were trying to persuade her to get treatment.”

“Yes.”

“How’d he relate to that? And to treatment?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I never asked him.”

“But he didn’t fight it.”

“No. Don’s not a fighter.”

“What is he?”

“A charmer. Everyone likes him,” she said, with distaste.

“How do you feel about him?”

She gave me an irritated look, brushed her hair from her forehead. “How do I feel? He doesn’t get in my way.”

“Do you think he’s insincere?”

“I think he’s… shallow. Pure Hollywood.”

Echoing the prejudices she’d just decried. She realized it and said, “I know that sounds very San Labrador, but you’d have to meet him to understand. He’s tan in the winter, lives for tennis and skiing, always smiling even when there’s nothing to smile about. Father was a man of depth. Mother deserves more. If I’d known it would get this far, I’d never have started it.”

“Does he have any children of his own?”

“No. He was never married. Not until now.

The way she emphasized “now” made me ask, “Are you concerned that he married your mother for her money?”

“The thought has occurred to me- Don’s not exactly poor, but he’s not in Mother’s league.”

She gave a wave of her hand, so choppy and awkward that it made me take note.

I said, “Is part of your conflict about Harvard a worry that she needs protection from him?”

“No, but I can’t see him being able to take care of her. Why she married him I still can’t figure out.”

“What about the staff- in terms of taking care of her?”

“They’re nice,” she said, “but she needs more.”

“What about Jacob Dutchy?”

“Jacob,” she said, with a tremor in her voice. “Jacob… died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Just last year,” she said. “He developed some kind of cancer and it took him quickly. He left the house right after the diagnosis and went to a place- some sort of rest home. But he wouldn’t tell us where. Didn’t want anyone to see him sick. After he… Afterwards, the home called Mother and told her he was… There wasn’t even any funeral, just cremation. It really hurt me- not being able to help him. But Mother said we’d helped by letting him do it his way.”

More tears. More tissues.

I said, “I remember him as being a strong-willed gentleman.”

She bowed her head. “At least it was quick.”

I waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, I said, “So much has been happening to you. It’s got to feel overwhelming. I can see why it’s hard for you to know what to do.”

“Oh, Dr. Delaware!” she said, getting up and coming forward and throwing her arms around my neck. She’d put on perfume for the appointment. Something heavy and floral and much too old for her. Something a maiden aunt might wear. I thought of her making her own way through life. The trials and errors.

It made me ache for her. I could feel her hands grip my back. Her tears moistened my jacket.

I uttered words of comfort that seemed as substantial as the gilded light. When she’d stopped crying for a full minute, I pulled away gently.

She moved away quickly, sat back down, looking shamefaced. Wringing her hands.

I said, “It’s all right, Melissa. You don’t always have to be strong.”

Shrink’s reflex. Another yea-say.

The right thing to say. But in this case, was it the truth?

She began pacing the room. “I can’t believe I’m falling apart like this. It’s so… I planned for this to be so… businesslike. A consultation, not…”

“Not therapy?”

“Yes. This was for her. I really thought I was okay, didn’t need therapy. I wanted to show you I was okay.”

“You really are okay, Melissa. This is an incredibly stressful time for you. All the changes in your mother’s life. Losing Jacob.”

“Yes,” she said absently. “He was a dear.”

I waited several moments before continuing. “And now the Harvard thing. That’s a major decision. It would be foolish not to take it seriously.”

She sighed.

I said, “Let me ask you this: If everything else was calm, would you want to go?”

“Well… I know it’s a great opportunity- my golden apple. But I have to- I need to feel right about it.”

“What could help you feel right about it?”

She shook her head and threw up her hands. “I don’t know. I wish I did.”

She looked at me. I smiled and pointed at the couch. She returned to her seat.

I said, “What could really convince you your mother will be okay?”

“Her being okay! Normal! Like anyone else. That sounds terrible- as if I’m ashamed of her. I’m not. I’m just worried.”

“You want to be sure she can take care of herself.”

“That’s the thing, she can. Up in her room. It’s her domain. It’s just the outside world… Now that she’s going out- trying to change- it’s scary.”

“Of course it is.”

Silence.

I said, “I suppose I’d be wasting my breath to remind you that you can’t go on taking responsibility for your mother forever. Being a parent to your parent. That it will get in the way of your own life and do her no good.”

“Yes, I know. That’s what N- of course that’s true.”

“Has someone else been telling you the same thing?”

She bit her lip. “Just Noel. Noel Drucker. He’s a friend- not a boyfriend, just a boy who’s a friend. I mean, he likes me as more than a friend, but I’m not sure how I feel about him. But I do respect him. He’s an exceptionally good person.”

“How old is Noel?”

“A year older than me. He got accepted to Harvard last year, took time off to work and save up money. His family doesn’t have any money- it’s just him and his mother. He’s been working his whole life and is very mature for his age. But when he talks about Mother, I just want to tell him to… stop.”

“Ever let him know how you feel?”

“No. He’s very sensitive. I don’t want to hurt him. And I know he means well- he’s thinking of me.”

“Boy,” I said, blowing out breath. “You’re taking care of lots of people.”

“Guess so.” Smile.

“Who’s taking care of Melissa?”

“I can take care of myself.” Stating it with a defiance that pulled me back nine years.

“I know you can, Melissa. But even caretakers need to be cared for, once in a while.”

“Noel tries to take care of me. But I won’t let him. That’s terrible, isn’t it? Frustrating him like that. But I’ve got to do things my way. And he just doesn’t understand the way it is with Mother. No one does.”

“Do Noel and your mother get along?”

“The little they have to do with each other, they do. She thinks he’s a nice boy. Which he is. Everyone thinks that- if you knew him you’d understand why. And he likes her well enough. But he says I’m doing her more harm than good by protecting her. That she’ll get better when she really has to- as if it’s her choice.”

Melissa got up and walked around the room again. Letting her hands settle on things, touching, examining. Feigning sudden fascination with the pictures on the walls.

I said, “How can I best help you, Melissa?”

She pivoted on one foot and faced me. “I thought maybe if you could talk to Mother. Tell me what you think.”

“You want me to evaluate her? Give you a professional opinion as to whether she really can cope with your going to Harvard?”

She bit her lip a couple of times, touched one of her earrings, flipped her hair. “I trust your judgment, Dr. Delaware. What you did for me, how you helped me change- it was like… magic. If you tell me it’s okay to leave her, then I will. I’ll just do it.”

Years ago I’d seen her as the magician. But letting her know that, now, would be terrifying.

I said, “We were a good team, Melissa. You showed strength and courage back then, just like you’re showing now.”

“Thank you. So would you…?”

“I’d be happy to talk with your mother. If she consents. And if it’s okay with the Gabneys.”

She frowned. “Why them?”

“I need to make sure I don’t disrupt their treatment plan.”

“Okay,” she said. “I just hope she doesn’t give you problems.”

“Dr. Ursula?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Any reason you think she might?”

“No. She’s just… She likes to be in charge of everything. I can’t help thinking she wants Mother to keep secrets. That have nothing to do with therapy.”

“What kind of secrets?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s the thing: I’ve got nothing to back me up- just a feeling. I know it sounds weird. Noel says I’m being paranoid.”

“It’s not paranoia,” I said. “You care deeply about your mother. You’ve been taking care of her for years. It wouldn’t be natural for you to just-”

Her tension dissipated. She smiled.

I said, “There I go again, huh?”

She started to giggle, stopped, embarrassed.

I said, “I’ll call Dr. Ursula today, and we’ll take it from there. Okay?”

“Okay.” She took a couple of steps closer, wrote down the number at the clinic for me.

I said, “Hang in there, Melissa. We’ll get through this.”

“I sure hope so. You can call me on my private line- that’s the number you reached me at yesterday.”

She walked back to the coffee table, hastily picked up her purse, and held it in front of her, waist-high.

The accessory defense.

I said, “Is there anything else?”

“No,” she said, glancing at the door. “Guess we’ve covered plenty, haven’t we?”

“We had plenty to catch up on.”

We walked to the door.

She turned the knob and said, “Well, thanks again, Dr. Delaware.”

Tight voice. Tight shoulders. More tense than when she’d come in.

I said, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to talk about, Melissa? There’s no rush. I’ve got plenty of time.”

She stared at me. Then her eyes slammed shut like security shutters and her shoulders dropped.

“It’s him,” she said, in a very small voice. “McCloskey. He’s back- in L.A. Totally free and I don’t know what he’ll do!”

8

I brought her back inside and sat her down.

She said, “I was going to mention it at the start but…”

“It gives a whole different dimension to your fear of leaving.”

“Yes, but to be honest, I’d be worried even without him. He just adds to it.”

“When did you find out he was back?”

“Last month. There was this show on TV, some documentary about the Victim’s Bill of Rights- how in some states the family can write away to the prison and they’ll tell you when the criminal is coming up for a parole hearing. So you can protest. I knew he’d gotten out- years ago- and had moved away. But I wrote anyway, trying to see if there was anything more I could learn- I guess it was part of the same thing. Trying to help her. The prison took a long time to write back, then told me to get in touch with the Parole Department. That was a real hassle- talking to the wrong people, being put on hold. In the end I had to submit a written request for information. Finally I got through and found out the name of his last parole officer. Here in L.A.! Only he wasn’t seeing him anymore- McCloskey had just gone off parole.”

“How long’s he been out of prison?”

“Six years. That I found out from Jacob. I’d been bugging him for a while, wanting to know- wanting to understand. He kept putting me off, but I wouldn’t give up. Finally, when I was fifteen he admitted he’d been keeping an eye on McCloskey the whole time, had found out he’d been released a couple of years before and had left the state.”

She made tiny white fists and shook them. “The creep served thirteen years out of a twenty-three-year sentence- time off for good behavior. That really stinks, doesn’t it? No one cares about the victim. He should have been sent to the gas chamber!”

“Did Jacob know where he’d gone?”

“New Mexico. Then Arizona and, I think, Texas- working with the Indians on the reservation or something. Jacob said he was trying to fool the Parole Department into thinking he was a decent human being and that they’d probably be fooled. And he was right, because they did set him free and now he can do anything he wants. The parole officer was a nice guy, just about ready to retire. His name was Bayliss and he really seemed to care. But he said he was sorry, there was nothing he could do.”

“Does he think McCloskey’s a threat to your mother- or anyone else?”

“He said he had no evidence of that but that he didn’t know. That no one could be sure with someone like him.”

“Has McCloskey tried to contact your mother?”

“No, but what’s to say he won’t? He’s crazy- that kind of craziness doesn’t change overnight, does it?”

“Not usually.”

“So he’s a clear and present danger, isn’t he?”

I had no easy answer for that. Said, “I can see why you’re concerned,” and didn’t like the sound of it.

She said, “Dr. Delaware, how can I leave her? Maybe it’s a sign- his coming back. That I shouldn’t leave. I mean, I can get a good education here. UCLA and USC both accepted me. In the long run, what difference is it going to make?”

Different tune from the one she’d sung just a few moments ago.

“Melissa, a person with your brains can get a good education anywhere. Is there a reason, besides education, that you considered Harvard?”

“I don’t know… maybe it was just ego. Yes, that’s probably what it was- out to show myself I could do it.”

“Any other reason?”

“Well… there’s Noel. He really wants me to go there and I thought it would be- I mean, it is the best college in the country, isn’t it? I figured, why not apply? It was actually kind of a lark. I really didn’t think I was going to get in.” She shook her head. “Sometimes I think it would have been easier being a C student. Fewer choices.”

“Melissa, anyone in your position- the situation with your mother- would be in conflict. And now McCloskey. But the harsh truth is that even if he does pose a danger, you’re not in any position to defend your mother against him.”

“So what are you saying?” she said angrily. “That I should just give up?”

“I’m saying McCloskey should definitely be looked into. By a professional. To find out why he came back, what he’s up to. If he’s judged to be dangerous, there are things that can be done.”

“Like what?”

“Restraining orders. Security precautions. Is your home well guarded?”

“I guess. There’s an alarm system and gates. And the police patrol regularly- there’s so little crime in San Labrador the police are basically just like rent-a-cops. Should we be doing more?”

“Have you told your mother about McCloskey?”

“No, of course not! I didn’t want to freak her out- not with how well she’s been doing.”

“What about your- Mr. Ramp?”

“No. No one knows. No one asks me my opinion about anything anyway, and I don’t volunteer.”

“Have you told Noel?”

She gave an uncomfortable look. “Yes. He knows.”

“What does he say?”

“To just forget about it. But that’s easy for him- it’s not his mother. You didn’t answer my question, Dr. Delaware- is there something else we should be doing?”

“I’m not the one to say. There are professionals who specialize in that kind of thing.”

“Where do I find them?”

“Let me check,” I said. “I might be able to help you with that.”

“Your court connections?”

“Something like that. In the meantime, why don’t we proceed as planned. I’ll contact the Gabneys and see if it’s okay for me to meet with your mother. If it is, I’ll let you know and you can set up an appointment for me to come by. If it isn’t, we’ll take another look at our options. In either event, you and I should be talking some more. Want to make another appointment?”

“How about tomorrow?” she said. “Same time. If you’ve got the time.”

“I do.”

“Thank you- and sorry if I got too hot under the collar just now.”

“You’re fine,” I said, and walked her to the door for the second time.

“Thanks, Dr. Delaware.”

“Take care of yourself, Melissa.”

“I will,” she said. But she looked like a kid overloaded with homework.

***

After she was gone, I thought about the way she’d dropped a crumb-trail of crucial facts: her mother’s remarriage, the young man in her life, Dutchy’s death, McCloskey’s return. All of it delivered parenthetically. With an offhandedness that screamed self-defense.

But given everything she had to deal with- loss, ambivalence, crucial decisions, the erosion of personal control- self-defense was damn reasonable.

The control issue had to be especially hard for her. An inflated sense of personal power was the logical legacy of all those years of raising her parent. She’d used it to guide her mother to the brink of change.

Playing matchmaker. Referral service.

Only to be defeated by her own success: forced to stand back and surrender authority to a therapist. To share affection with a stepfather.

Add to that the normal strains and doubts of young-adulthood and it had to be crushing.

Who, indeed, was taking care of Melissa?

Jacob Dutchy had once filled that role.

Though I’d barely known the man, thinking of him gone saddened me. The faithful retainer, ever protective. He’d had a certain… presence.

For Melissa, that amounted to paternal loss number two.

What did that bode in terms of her relationships with men? The development of trust?

If her comments about Don Ramp- and Noel Drucker- were any example, that road hadn’t been smooth, so far.

Now the folks from Cambridge, Mass., were demanding a decision, raising the specter of further surrender.

Who was really afraid of separation?

Not that her fears were totally without foundation.

A Mikoksi with acid.

Why had McCloskey come back to L.A., nearly two decades after his conviction? Thirteen years of imprisonment plus six on parole made him fifty-three years old. I’d seen what prison years could do. Wondered if he was nothing more than a pallid, weary old con, seeking out the comfort of like-minded losers and dead-end haunts.

Or perhaps he’d used the time at San Quentin to let his rage fester. Nursing acid-and-blood fantasies, filling his bottle…

A discomfiting sense of self-doubt began nagging at me, the same feeling of missing the mark that I’d experienced nine years ago- bending all my rules to treat a terrified child.

A feeling of not really having a grip on the core of the problem.

Nine years ago, she’d gotten better despite that.

Magic.

How many rabbits were left in the hat?

***

A machine answered at the Gabney Clinic, listing numbers and emergency beeper codes for both doctors. No other staff members were named. I left a message for Ursula Cunningham-Gabney, identifying myself as Melissa Dickinson’s therapist and requesting a call-back as soon as possible. During the next few hours several calls came in, but none from Pasadena.

At ten after seven Milo arrived, wearing the same clothes he’d had on that morning, but with grass stains on the pants and sweat stains under the armpits. He smelled of turf and looked tired.

I said, “Any holes in one?”

He shook his head, found a Grolsch in the fridge, popped it, and said, “Not my sport, sport. Chasing a little white blur around the crab grass drives me crazy.”

Putts you crazy. We’re talking short-distance, guy.”

He smiled. “The only putz is me, for thinking I could go suburban.” Tilting his head back, he guzzled beer. When the bottle was empty he said, “Where to, dinner-wise?”

“Wherever you want.”

“Well,” he said, “you know me, always pining for the haut monde. See, I even dressed for success.”

***

We ended up at a taco stand on Pico near Twentieth, in the bad part of Santa Monica, inhaling traffic fumes and sitting at a knife-scarred picnic table, eating soft steamed tortillas filled with coarse-ground pork and marinated vegetables, and drinking Coca-Cola Classic over crushed ice out of waxed-paper cups.

The stand stood on a corner patch of devastated asphalt, between a liquor store and a check-cashing outlet. Homeless people, and a few people who wouldn’t live in homes if they had them, loitered and scrounged nearby. A couple of them watched us collect our food at the counter and find our seats. Panhandling fantasies or worse brightened their clouded eyes. Milo kept them at bay with policeman’s looks.

We ate looking over our shoulders. He said, “Basic enough for you?” Before I could answer, he was up and heading toward the order counter, one hand in his pocket. A filthy, emaciated, mat-bearded man around my age seized the moment and approached me, grinning and flapping toothless gums incoherently as he waved randomly with a short-circuited arm. The other limb was drawn up to his shoulder, frozen stiff and bent like a chicken wing.

I held out a dollar bill. The mobile arm snapped it up with crustacean precision. He was off before Milo returned with a cardboard carton full of yellow-papered parcels.

But Milo’d seen it, and scowled as he sat down. “What’d you do that for?”

“The guy was brain-damaged,” I said.

“Or faking it.”

“Either way, he’d have to be pretty desperate, wouldn’t you say?”

He shook his head, unwrapped a taco, and bit into it. When the food had traversed his gullet he said, “Everyone’s desperate, Alex. Keep doing that and they’ll be all over us like fungus.”

It didn’t sound like something he would have said three months ago.

I looked around, saw the way the rest of the street people were regarding him, and said, “I wouldn’t worry about that.”

He pointed at the food parcels. “Go ahead, this is for you, too.”

I said, “Maybe in a little while,” and drank Coke that had turned insipid.

A moment later I said, “If you wanted information about an ex-con, how would you go about it?”

“What kind of information?” he said, forming the words around a mouthful of pork.

“How the guy behaved in prison, what he’s up to now.”

“This con on parole?”

“Post-parole. Free and clear.”

“A paragon of rehabilitation, huh?”

“That’s the question mark.”

“How long’s Mr. Paragon been free and clear?”

“ ’Bout a year or so.”

“What was he in for?”

“Assault, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder- he paid someone to damage someone else.”

“Paid for it, huh?” He wiped his lips.

“Paid with the intent of doing serious damage or worse.”

“Then just assume he’ll continue to be scum.”

“What if I wanted something more specific?”

“To what end?”

“It’s related to a patient.”

“Meaning hush-hush confidential?”

“At this point.”

“Well,” he said, “it’s really no big deal. You- meaning a cop, ’cause a civilian’s gonna have a hell of a time doing any of this- you follow the chain. The past is the best predictor of the future, right? So first link is the guy’s sheet. NCIC and local. You talk to any cops who knew him back in the bad old days. Preferably the ones who busted him. Next you eyeball the D.A.’s packet- there’ll be sentencing recommendations in there, shrink stuff, whatever. Step three is talk to the prison staff- find out what kind of time he served. Though the ones who’ll really know him best are the assholes who served it with him. If you’ve got a hook into any of them, you tug. Then check out his parole officer- problem there is caseload and turnover. Lot of what they do is rubber-stamping; the chance of getting anything meaningful is slim. Final step is locating some of his current K.A.’s- known associates- the scum he’s been socializing with since he’s been out. Finis. Nothing profound, just legwork. And in the end it won’t tell you much. So if you’ve got a patient who’s worried, I’d tell him or her to be careful. Buy a big gun and learn how to use it. Maybe a pit bull.”

“The trace you just described- could a private attorney do it?”

He eyed me over a taco. “Your average attorney? No. Not in any reasonable length of time. One with access to a good private eye could pull it off, but it would still take a private guy longer unless he’s got great police connections.”

“Like an ex-cop?”

He nodded. “Some of the private guys are vets. All of them bill by the hour and this kind of thing is going to build lots of hours. So having a rich client would help.”

“Sound like the kind of thing you’d be interested in?”

He put his taco down.

“What?”

“A little private consultation, Milo. A real hobby. Are you allowed to work while on suspension?”

“I’m Joe Citizen, can do whatever I want. But why the hell would I want?”

“Better than chasing blurs on crab grass.”

He grunted. Picked up his taco, finished it, and began unwrapping another.

“Hell,” he said, “I wouldn’t even know what to charge.”

“That mean you’re considering it?”

“Mulling. This patient of yours- is he or she the victim?”

“Victim’s daughter,” I said. “Eighteen years old. I treated her years ago, when she was a kid. She’s been accepted at a college out of town and isn’t sure about going, even though it’s probably the best thing for her.”

“Because of the scumbag being back?”

“There are other reasons for her to have doubts. But the scumbag’s presence makes it impossible to deal with any of those. I can’t encourage her to go away with this guy lurking in the background, Milo.”

He nodded and ate.

“The family’s got money,” I said. “That’s why I asked about attorneys- if they don’t already have a battalion on retainer, they could hire one. But with you doing it I’d have confidence it was being done properly.”

“Aw, shucks,” he said, and took a few more bites of taco. He pulled up his shirt collar and gave a furtive look. “Milo Marlowe, Milo Spade… which do you think is catchier?”

“What about Sherlock Sturgis?”

“What’s that make you? The New Age Watson? Sure, go ahead, tell the family if they want to go that route I’ll check him out.”

“Thanks.”

No problema.” He picked his teeth and looked down at his sweat-stained clothes. “Wrong climate for a trench coat- any such thing as a trench shirt?”

“Go all the way,” I said. “L.A. Vice. Armani.”

We drained our drinks and polished off more food. On our way to the car, another of the panhandlers approached us- a heavy man of indeterminate race and creed, wearing a shit-eating grin while doing a palsied boogaloo. Milo glared at him, then reached into his pocket and came up with a handful of pocket change. Thrusting the money at the vagrant, he wiped his hands on his pants, turned his back on the man’s gibbered benedictions, and cursed as he reached for the door handle. But the epithets lacked conviction- I’d heard much better out of him.

***

Dr. Ursula Cunningham-Gabney had called back while I was gone, leaving a number where she could be reached for the rest of the evening. I dialed it, got a throaty, well-modulated female voice.

“Dr. Cunningham-Gabney?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Dr. Delaware. Thanks for returning my call, Dr. Gabney.”

“Is this by any chance Dr. Alexander Delaware?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Ah,” she said. “I’m familiar with your research-pavor nocturnus in children. My husband and I included it in a bibliography on anxiety-mediated disorders we compiled last year for The American Journal of Psychiatry. Very thought-provoking.”

“Thanks. I’m familiar with your work, too.”

“Where do you practice, Dr. Delaware? Children are outside of our bailiwick, so we do have occasion to make frequent referrals.”

“I’m on the west side, but I don’t do therapy. Just forensic work. Short-term consultations.”

“I see. The message I got said you were someone’s therapist.”

“Melissa Dickinson. I was her therapist years ago. I remain available for my old patients. She came in to see me recently.”

“Melissa,” she said. “Such a serious young woman.”

“She has a lot to be serious about.”

“Yes. Of course she does. The family pathology is deep-rooted. I’m glad she’s finally reached out for help.”

“Her main concern seems to be her mother,” I said. “Separation. How her mother will deal with her going away to Harvard.”

“Her mother is very proud of her. And eager for her to go to Boston.”

“Yes, Melissa’s told me that. But she’s still worried.”

“No doubt she is,” she said. “But those worries are Melissa’s alone.”

“So there’s no chance of her mother’s relapsing if Melissa goes away?”

“Hardly, Dr. Delaware. In fact, I’m sure Gina- Mrs. Ramp- would appreciate her newfound freedom. Melissa’s a bright girl and a devoted daughter, but she can get a bit… cloying.”

“Is that her mother’s term?”

“No, Mrs. Ramp would never say it that way. But she feels it. So I hope you’ll be able to confront Melissa’s ambivalence head-on and do it quickly enough for her to make the break. I understand there’s a deadline involved. Harvard tends to be impatient- I know from experience. So she’s going to have to commit. One would hate to see a technicality get in the way of forward movement.”

Thinking of McCloskey, I said, “Does Mrs. Ramp have any other worries that might be transmitting themselves to Melissa?”

“Transmitting? As in emotional contagion? No, I’d say it’s just the opposite- the risk is of Melissa’s anxiety transmitting itself to her mother. Mrs. Ramp presented as one of the most severely phobic patients we’ve ever treated, and we’ve treated many. But she’s made extraordinary progress and she’ll continue to do so. Given the chance.”

“Are you saying Melissa’s a threat to her progress?”

“Melissa means well, Dr. Delaware. I can certainly understand her concern. Growing up with an ineffectual mother would give her a stake in being hypermature. At some level, that would be adaptive. But things change, and at this point in time, her hovering serves only to reduce her mother’s self-confidence.”

“How does she hover?”

“She tends to make herself rather conspicuous during crucial therapeutic moments.”

“I’m still not sure I understand.”

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll spell it out. As you may know, treatment for agoraphobia needs to be in vivo- to take place out in the real world, where the anxiety-provoking stimuli are. Her mother and I literally take steps together. Out the front gate, around the block. It’s a slow but steady process, calibrated so that the patient experiences as little anxiety as possible. Melissa makes a point of being there during important moments. Watching. With her arms folded across her chest and this absolutely skeptical look on her face. It’s almost comical, but of course it’s a distraction. It’s gotten so I’ve scheduled things around her- aiming for breakthroughs when she’s at school. Now, however, she’s out of school and more… conspicuous.”

“Have you ever talked to her about this?”

“I’ve tried, Dr. Delaware, but Melissa shows no interest in talking to me.”

“Funny,” I said. “She sees it differently.”

“Oh?”

“She perceives herself as trying to obtain information from you and getting rebuffed.”

Silence. Then: “Yes, I’m sure she does. But that’s a neurotic distortion. I’m not without compassion for her situation, Dr. Delaware. She’s dealing with a lot of ambivalence- intense feelings of threat and jealousy. It can’t be easy for her. But I need to focus on my patient. And Melissa could use your help- or someone else’s, if you’re not so inclined- in sorting things out.”

I said, “She’d like me to talk to her mother. In order to clarify her mother’s feelings so she can sort out the Harvard thing. I’m calling to find out if that’s okay. I don’t want to disrupt your treatment.”

“That’s wise of you. What, exactly, would you discuss with Mrs. Ramp?”

“Just her feelings about Melissa’s leaving- which, from what you’ve told me, sound pretty clear. After hearing it firsthand, I’d be able to deal with Melissa’s doubts.”

“Using your advocate role to propel her forward?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I don’t see any harm in that. As long as you keep your discussion circumscribed.”

“Any particular topics you’d like me to stay away from?”

“At this point, I’d say everything other than Melissa’s college career. Let’s just keep things simple.”

“Doesn’t sound as if anything about this case has been simple.”

“True,” she said, with a lilt in her voice. “But that’s the beauty of psychiatry, isn’t it?”

***

I called Melissa at nine and she picked up on the first ring.

“I checked with my contact- he’s a police detective on temporary leave so he has some free time. If you still want McCloskey looked into, it can be done.”

“I want it,” she said. “Tell him to go ahead.”

“It may take a bit of time, and investigators usually bill by the hour.”

“No problem. I’ll take care of it.”

“You’re going to pay him yourself?”

“Sure.”

“It could end up being substantial.”

“I’ve got money of my own, Dr. Delaware- I’ve paid for things for a long time. I’m going to pay your bill, so why not this-”

“Melissa-”

“No problem, Dr. Delaware. Really. I’m a very good money manager. I’m over eighteen, meaning it’s totally legal. If I’m going to go away and live independently, why not start right now?”

When I hesitated, she said, “It’s the only way, Dr. Delaware. I don’t want Mother even knowing he’s back.”

“What about Don Ramp?”

“I don’t want him involved, either. It’s not his problem.”

“All right,” I said. “We’ll work out the details when I see you tomorrow. Speaking of which, I spoke to Dr. Ursula and she says it’s fine for me to meet with your mother.”

“Good. I already talked to Mother and she’s willing to meet you. Tomorrow- isn’t that great? So can we cancel our appointment and do that instead?”

“All right. I’ll be there tomorrow at noon.”

“Thanks, Dr. Delaware. I’ll have lunch set out for you. What do you like to eat?”

“Lunch isn’t necessary, but thanks anyway.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Do you know how to get here?”

“I know how to get to San Labrador.”

She gave me directions to her house.

I copied them and said, “Okay, Melissa, see you tomorrow.”

“Dr. Delaware?”

“Yes, Melissa?”

“Mother’s worried. About you. Even though I told her how nice you are. She’s worried about what you’ll think of her. Because of the way she treated you years ago.”

“Tell her I understand, and that my horns only come out during the full moon.”

No laughter.

I said, “I won’t be in the least bit rough, Melissa. She’ll be fine.”

“I hope so.”

“Melissa, part of what you’re dealing with- a lot more important than money management- is breaking away. Finding your own identity and letting your mother do things for herself. I know it’s hard- I think it’s taken lots of guts for you to go as far as you have. Just calling me took guts. We’re going to work it out.”

“I hear you,” she said. “It’s just hard. Loving someone that much.”

9

The stretch of freeway that connects L.A. to Pasadena announces itself with four tunnels whose entries are festooned with exquisite stonework. Not the kind of thing any city council is likely to approve nowadays, but this bit of progress was carved into the basin long ago, the city’s first conduit to ceaseless motion masquerading as freedom.

It’s a grubby and graceless asphalt belt now. Three narrow, street-level lanes, bordered by exhaust-warped maples and houses that range from Victorian Relic to Tobacco Road. Psychotically engineered ramps appear without warning. Concrete overpasses that have browned with time- L.A.’s stab at patina- throw spooky shadows across the blacktop. Every time I get on it I think of Nathanael West and James M. Cain- a Southern California history that probably never really existed but is gloomily gratifying to imagine.

I also think of Las Labradoras and how places like the upper-crusty parts of Pasadena, Sierra Madre, and San Labrador might as well be on the moon for all their cross-pollination with the urban tangle at the other end of the freeway.

Las Labradoras. The Farm Girls.

I encountered them years before I met Melissa. In retrospect, the similarity between the experiences seemed obvious. Why hadn’t I made the connection before?

They were women who called themselves girls. Two dozen sorority sisters who’d married very well and settled into estate living at a young age, gotten a couple of kids off to school, and started looking for ways to fill time. Seeking comfort in numbers, they banded together and established a volunteer society- an exclusive club, sorority days renewed. Their headquarters was a bungalow at the Cathcart Hotel- a $200-a-day nest they obtained gratis, including room service, because one of their husbands owned a chunk of that hostelry, and another, the bank that held the mortgage. After composing bylaws and electing officers, they searched for a raison d’Être. Hospital work seemed admirable, so most of their early energies were focused upon remodeling and running the gift shop at Cathcart Memorial.

Then the son of one of their members was diagnosed with a rare and painful disease and transferred to Western Pediatric Hospital, the only place in L.A. where the ailment could be managed. The child survived but suffered chronically. His mother dropped out of the club in order to devote more time to him. Las Labradoras decided to offer their good services to Western Peds.

At the time, I was in my third year on staff, running a psychosocial rehab program for seriously ill children and their families. The chief of staff called me into his office and suggested I find a niche for “these girls,” talking about budgetary problems for the softer sciences and emphasizing the need to “interface with positive forces within the community.”

One Tuesday in May, I put on a three-piece suit and drove out to the Cathcart Hotel. Ate boiled-shrimp canapÉs and crustless sandwiches, drank weak coffee, and met the girls.

They were in their mid-thirties, uniformly bright and attractive and genuinely charming, projecting a noblesse oblige tainted by self-consciousness and self-awareness: They’d gone to college during the sixties, and though that consisted, typically, of four sheltered years at USC or Arizona State or some other place where the foment hadn’t really taken hold, even protected seÑoritas had been touched by the times. They knew that they- their husbands, their children, the way they lived and would continue to live- were The Enemy. The privileged battlements all those unwashed radical types clamored to storm.

I wore a beard back then and drove a Dodge Dart that teetered on the brink of death. Despite the suit and my fresh haircut, I figured I had to look like Radical Danger to them. But they accepted me warmly, listened intensely to my after-lunch talk, never removed their eyes from my slide show- sick kids, IV poles, surgical theaters. The one we staffers, during the blackest of moments, called the Tearjerker Matinee.

When it was over, they were all wet-eyed. More certain than ever that they wanted to help.

I decided the best way to make use of their talents would be to have them serve as guides for newly diagnosed families. Psychosocial docents whose goal was to cut through the procedural red tape that hospitals produce even faster than debt. Weekly two-hour shifts in tailored uniforms that they designed themselves, smiles and greetings and guided tours of the misery. Working within the system to blunt some of its indignities, but no swan dives into the deep waters of trauma and tragedy, and no blood and guts. The chief of staff thought it was a great idea.

So did the girls. I set up a training program. Lectures, reading lists, tours of the hospital, debriefings, discussion groups, role-playing.

They were first-rate students, took detailed notes, made intelligent comments. Half-jokingly asked if I planned on testing them.

After three weeks they graduated. The chief of staff presented them with diplomas bound in pink ribbon. A week before the docent rotation was scheduled to begin, I received a handwritten note on ice-colored stationery.

LAS LABRADORAS

BUNGALOW B, THE CATHCART

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA 91125

Dear Doctor Delaware,

On behalf of my Sisters and myself, I wish to thank you for the consideration you’ve shown us during these past few weeks. We girls all agree that we learned a tremendous amount and greatly profited from the experience.

We regret, however, that we will not be able to participate in the “Welcome Mat” program, as it presents some strategic problems for some of our members. We hope this hasn’t caused you any undue inconvenience and have tendered a donation to the Western Pediatric Hospital Christmas Fund in lieu of our participation.

Best wishes for a wonderful year and our sincere appreciation for the terrific work you do.

Faithfully yours,

Nancy Brown

President, Las Labradoras

I found Ms. Brown’s home number in my Rolodex, dialed it the next day, at eight in the morning.

“Oh, hi,” she said. “How are you?”

“Hanging in, Nancy. I just got your letter.”

“Yes. I’m so sorry. I know how terrible this looks, but we just can’t.”

“You mentioned strategic problems. Anything I can help with?”

“No, I’m sorry, but- It’s nothing related to your program, Dr. Delaware. Just your… setting.”

“My setting?”

“The hospital’s. The environment. L.A., Hollywood. Most of us were amazed at how far down it’s slid. Some of the girls think it’s just too far to travel.”

“Too far or too dangerous?”

“Too far and too dangerous. Lots of the husbands are against us coming down there, too.”

“We really haven’t had any problems, Nancy. You’d be here during the daylight hours, using the VIP parking lot.”

Silence.

I said, “Patients come and go every day with no problem.”

“Well… you know how it is.”

“Guess so,” I said. “Okay. Be well.”

“I’m sure it sounds silly to you, Dr. Delaware. And to be honest, I think it’s an overreaction- I tried to tell them that. But our charter says we either participate as a group or not at all. We took a vote, Dr. Delaware, and this is the way it turned out. I do apologize if we’ve caused you problems. And we do hope the hospital accepts our gift in the spirit in which it was offered.”

“No doubt the hospital does.”

“Goodbye, Dr. Delaware. Have a nice day.”

***

Notes on good paper, monetary buy-offs, phone brush-offs. Must be the San Labrador style.

I thought about it all the way to the end of the freeway, onto Arroyo Seco, then east on California Boulevard, past Cal Tech. A quick series of loops through quiet suburban streets, then Cathcart Boulevard appeared and I resumed the eastward trek, into the wilds of San Labrador.

The Farmer Saint.

A canonization that had eluded the Vatican.

The very origins of the place were grounded in a buy-off.

Once the private domain of H. Farmer Cathcart, heir to an East Coast railroad dynasty, San Labrador looked like old money but had been chartered as a city for only fifty years.

Cathcart came to Southern California at the turn of the century in order to scope out commercial possibilities for the family. He liked what he saw, began buying up downtown rail lines and hotels, orange groves, bean farms, and ranch land on the eastern borders of Los Angeles, assembling a four-square-mile fiefdom in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. After building the requisite mansion, he surrounded it with world-class gardens and named the estate San Labrador- a bit of self-aggrandizement that made Episcopal tongues wag.

Then, midway through the Great Depression, he discovered his funds weren’t infinite. Holding on to half a square mile, he subdivided the rest. Parceling the gardens out to other rich men- tycoons of grand but lesser stature who could afford to maintain two- to seven-acre properties. Attaching restrictive covenants to all deed transfers, which ensured his living out the rest of his life in sweet harmony with nature and the finest aspects of Western civilization.

The rest of his life didn’t amount to much- he died in 1937 of influenza, leaving a will bequeathing his estate to the city of San Labrador, should such a city exist within two years. The tycoon tenants acted quickly, setting up a charter and pushing it through the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Cathcart’s mansion and grounds became a county-owned but privately funded museum-cum-botanical gardens that nobody visited- before the freeways.

During the postwar years the land was subdivided further: half-acre lots for the burgeoning professional class. But the covenants remained in place: no “coloreds,” no Orientals, no Jews, no Mexicans. No multiple dwellings. No alcohol served in public places. No nightclubs or theaters or places of “base entertainment.” Commercial establishments limited to an eight-block segment of Cathcart Boulevard, no commercial structure to exceed two stories, architectural style to be in the Spanish Revival mode, with plans approved by the city council.

State and federal law eventually nullified the racial restrictions, but there were ways to get around that, and San Labrador remained lily-white. The rest of the covenants withstood tests of time and litigation. Perhaps that was due to sound legal basis. Or maybe the fact that lots of judges and at least two district attorneys resided in San Labrador had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, the district’s immunity to change remained strong. As I cruised down Cathcart, nothing seemed different from the last time I’d been there. How long ago had that been? Three years. A Turner exhibition at the museum, a stroll through the library and grounds. With Robin…

Traffic was sparse but slow-moving. The boulevard was split by a wide greenbelt median. The same mix of shops ran along the south side, ensconced in jewel-box Spanish Revival buildings and dwarfed by the rust-tinged Chinese pistachios H. Farmer Cathcart had planted long ago. Doctors, dentists… lots of orthodontists. Clothiers for both sexes offering styles that made Brooks Brothers seem New Wave. A profusion of dry cleaners, florists, interior decorators, banks, and brokerage houses. Three stationers in two blocks- suddenly that made sense. Plenty of Esq.’s and Ltd.’s and faux-Victorian nomenclature on the signs. Nowhere to eat or drink or stretch. Frequent signs directing the meandering tourist to the museum.

A Hispanic man in blue city-issue coveralls pushed an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner along the sidewalk. A few white-haired figures walked around him. Otherwise the streets were bare.

The haut monde approach to exurbia. Picture-perfect. Except for the sky, soot-streaked and dingy, clouding the foothills. Because money and connections couldn’t buck geography: Ocean winds blew the smog here and, trapped by the hills, it settled in for the long run. San Labrador air was poisonous 120 days a year.

Following Melissa’s directions, I drove six blocks past the commercial area, took the first left-turn break in the median, and got onto Cotswold Drive, a pine-canopied straightaway that began snaking and climbing a half-mile in. Cool shade and post-nuclear silence followed: L.A.’s usual dearth of humanity, but here it seemed more pronounced.

Because of the cars- the lack of them. Not a single vehicle at the curb. The NO PARKING AT ANY TIME enforced with Denver boots and predatory fines. Rising above the empty streets were big tile-roofed houses behind sloping lawns. They got bigger as the grade climbed.

The road split at the top of the hill: Essex Ridge to the west, Sussex Knoll to the east. No homes visible here, just two-story walls of green- eugenia and juniper and red-berried toyon backed by forests of oak, ginkgo, and liquidambar.

I lowered my speed and cruised until I finally saw it. Hand-carved pine gates on thick doweled posts capped with verdigrised iron- the kind of hard, waxed pine you see on Buddhist temples and the counters of sushi bars. The posts sided by iron fencing and twelve-foot hedge. The numeral “1” on the left arm of the gate, “0” on the right. To the left of the “1,” an electric eye and talk box.

I pulled up, reached out the driver’s window, and punched the button on the box.

Melissa’s voice came out of the speaker. “Dr. Delaware?”

“Hi, Melissa.”

“One second.”

A rumble and groan and the gates angled inward. I drove up a steep stone path that had been hosed down so recently the air was misty. Past regimentally planted fifty-foot incense cedars and a vacant guardhouse that could have housed a couple of middle-class families. Then another regiment of trees- a sky-blotting grove of Monterey pines that stretched for several moments before condescending to smaller cousins: gnarled, bonsailike cypress and mountain dogwood ringed with free-form clumps of purple rhododendron, white and pink camellia japonica.

A dark drive. The silence seemed heavier. I thought of Gina Dickinson making her way down here, alone. Gained a new appreciation for her affliction. And her progress.

The trees finally cleared and a stadium-sized lawn came into view- ryegrass so healthy-looking it could have been fresh sod, edged with circular beds of begonia and star jasmine. I saw flashes of light at the far west end, among the cypress. Movement, glints of metal. Two- no, three- khaki-clad men, too distant to be clearly discernible. Hernandez’s sons? I could see why he needed five.

The gardeners worked on the vegetation with hand clippers, barely breaking the silence with dull clicks. No air guns or power tools here. Another covenant? Or house rules?

The path ended in a perfectly semicircular drive backed by a pair of date palms. Between the knobby palm trunks, two flights of double-width Bouquet-Canyon stone steps flanked by wisteria-laced stone balustrades led to the house: peach-colored, three-storied, wide as a neighborhood.

What could have been simply monolithic grossness was merely monumental. And surprisingly pleasing to the eye, the visual flight piloted by fanciful turns of the architect’s pencil. Subtly shifting angles and elevations, a richness of detail. High, arched, leaded windows grilled with teal-green, neo-Moorish wrought-iron work. Balconies, verandas, dripstones, running molds, and mullions carved from mocha-colored limestone. A limestone colonnade on the east end. Spanish roof-tiles honeycombed with mosaic precision. Stained-glass cinquefoil insets placed with a contempt for synchrony but an unerring eye for balance.

Still, the very size of the place- and the solitude- was oppressive and sad. Like an empty museum. Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to be phobic here.

I parked and got out. The gardener’s clicks were augmented by bird-squawks and breeze-rustle. I climbed the stairs, unable to imagine what it would have been like to grow up here, an only child.

The entry was big enough to accommodate a delivery truck: double doors of lacquered oak, trimmed with more verdigrised iron, each side divided into half a dozen raised panels. Carved into the panels were peasant scenes that evoked high-school Chaucer. They held my interest as I pressed the doorbell.

Two baritone chimes sounded; then the right door opened and Melissa stood there, wearing a white button-down shirt, pressed blue jeans, and white tennies: she looked tinier than ever. A doll in a dollhouse built to too large a scale.

She shrugged and said, “Some place, huh?”

“Very beautiful.”

She smiled, relieved. “My father designed it. He was an architect.”

The most she’d said about him in nine years. I wondered what else would emerge now that I’d made a house call.

She touched my elbow briefly, then drew it away.

“Come in,” she said. “Let me show you around.”

Around was a vast space crammed with treasures- an entry hall big enough for croquet, and at its rear a sinuous green marble staircase. Beyond the stairs, cavernous room after cavernous room- galleries built for display, vast and silent, indistinguishable from one another in terms of function. Cathedral and coffered ceilings, mirror-sheen paneling, tapestries, stained-glass skylights, kaleidoscopic Oriental and Aubusson rugs over floors of inlaid marble and hand-painted tile and French walnut parquet. So much sheen and opulence that my senses overloaded and I felt myself losing equilibrium.

I remembered feeling that way once before. Over twenty years ago. A college sophomore, backpacking solo across Europe on a second-class rail pass and $4 a day. Visiting the Vatican. Staring bug-eyed at gold-encrusted walls, the treasure-trove assembled in the name of God. Gradually pulling away from it and watching other tourists and Italian peasants visiting from the southern villages, gawking, too. The peasants never leaving a room before dropping coins in the alms boxes that stood near each door…

Melissa was talking and pointing, a docent in her own home. We were in a book-lined, five-sided, windowless room. She indicated a spotlit painting over a mantel. “And this one’s a Goya. “The Duke of Montero on His Steed.’ Father bought it in Spain when art was much more reasonable. He wasn’t concerned with what was fashionable- this was considered a very minor Goya until just a few years ago; too decorative. Portraiture was dÉclassÉ. Now auction houses write us letters all the time. Father had the foresight to travel to England and brought back cartons of Pre-Raphaelites when everyone else thought they were just kitsch. Tiffany glass pieces, too, during the fifties, when the experts brushed those off as frivolous.”

“You know your stuff,” I said.

She blushed. “I was taught.”

“By Jacob?”

She nodded and looked away. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ve seen enough for one day.”

Turning heel, she began walking out of the room.

“Are you interested in art yourself?” I said.

“I don’t know much about it- not the way Father or Jacob did. I do like things that are beautiful. If nobody gets hurt by it.”

“What do you mean?”

She frowned. We left the book-filled room, passed by the open door of another huge space, this one ceilinged with hand-painted walnut beams and backed with tall French doors. Beyond the glass was more lawn and forest and flowers, stone pathways, statuary, an amethyst-colored swimming pool, a sunken area, vine-topped and walled with dark-green tennis tarp under chain link. From the distance came the hollow thump of a ball bouncing.

A couple of hundred feet back, to the left of the court, was a long, low peach-colored building that resembled a stable: ten or so wooden doors, some of them ajar, backing a wide cobbled courtyard filled with gleaming, long-nosed antique automobiles. Amoeboid pools of water dotted the cobblestones. A figure in gray overalls bent over one of the cars, chamois in hand, buffing the flaring ruby-colored fender of a splendid piece of machinery. From the blower pipes, I guessed it was a Duesenberg and asked Melissa for confirmation.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s what it is,” and keeping her eyes straight ahead, she led me back through the art-filled caverns, toward the front of the house.

“I don’t know,” she said suddenly. “It just seems that so many things start off beautiful and turn hateful. It’s as if being beautiful can be a curse.”

I said, “McCloskey?”

She put both hands in the pockets of her jeans and gave an emphatic nod. “I’ve been thinking about him a lot.”

“More than before?”

“A lot more. Since we talked.” She stopped, turned to me, blinked hard. “Why would he come back, Dr. Delaware? What does he want?”

“Maybe nothing, Melissa. Maybe it means nothing. If anyone can find out, my friend can.”

“I hope so,” she said. “I certainly hope so. When can he start?”

“I’ll have him call you as soon as possible. His name is Milo Sturgis.”

“Good name,” she said. “Solid.”

“He’s a solid guy.”

We resumed walking. A big, broad woman in a white uniform was polishing a tabletop, feather duster in one hand, rag in the other. Open tin of paste wax near her knee. She turned her face slightly and our eyes met. Madeleine, grayer and wrinkled but still strong-looking. A grimace of recognition tightened her face; then she showed me her back and resumed her work.

Melissa and I stepped back into the entry hall. She headed for the green stairway. As she touched the handrail I said, “In terms of McCloskey, are you concerned about your own safety?”

“Mine?” she said, pausing with one foot on the first step. “Why should I be?”

“No reason. But you were just talking about beauty as a curse. Do you feel burdened or threatened by your own looks?”

“Me?” Her laughter was too quick, too loud. “Come on, Dr. D. Let’s go upstairs. I’ll show you beautiful.”

10

The top of the landing was a twenty-foot rosette of black marble inlaid with a blue-and-yellow sunburst pattern. French provincial furniture hugged the walls, potbellied, bowlegged, almost obscene with marquetry. Renaissance paintings of the Sentimental School- cherubs, harps, religious agony- competed with flocked-velvet paper the color of old port. Foot-wide white molding and coving defined three hallway spokes. Two more women in white vacuumed the one on the right. The other corridors were dark and empty. More like a hotel than a museum. The sad, aimless ambience of a resort during the off-season.

Melissa turned onto the middle corridor and led me past five white panel doors adorned with black and gold cloisonnÉ knobs.

At the sixth, she stopped and knocked.

A voice from within said, “Yes?”

Melissa said, “Dr. Delaware’s here,” and opened the door.

I’d been ready for another megadose of grandeur but found myself in a small, simple room- a sitting area, no more than twelve feet square, painted dove-gray and lit by a single overhead milk-glass fixture.

A white door took up a quarter of the rear wall. The other walls were bare except for a single lithograph: A softly colored mother-and-child scene that had to be Cassatt. The print was centered over a rose-colored, gray-piped loveseat. A pine coffee table and two pine chairs created a conversation area. Bone-china coffee service on the table. Woman on the couch.

She stood and said, “Hello, Dr. Delaware. I’m Gina Ramp.”

Soft voice.

She came forward, her walk a curious mix of grace and awkwardness. The awkwardness was all above the neck- her head was held unnaturally high and tilted to one side, as if recoiling from a blow.

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Ramp.”

She took my hand, gave it a quick, gentle squeeze and let go.

She was tall- had at least eight inches on her daughter- and still model-slender, in a knee-length, long-sleeved dress of polished gray cotton. Front-buttoned to the neck. Patch pockets. Flat-heeled gray sandals. A plain gold wedding band on her free hand. Gold balls in her ears. No other jewelry. No perfume.

The hair was medium-blond and starting to silver. She wore it short and straight, brushed forward with feathered bangs. Boyish. Almost ascetic.

Her face was pale, oval, made for the camera. Strong, straight nose, firm chin, wide gray-blue eyes stippled with green. The pouty allure of an old studio photo replaced by something more mature. More relaxed. Slight surrender of contour, the merest sag at the seams. Smile lines, brow furrows, a suggestion of pouch at the junction of lips and cheek.

Forty-three years old, I knew from an old newspaper clipping, and she looked every day of it. Yet age had softened her beauty. Enhanced it, somehow.

She turned to her daughter and smiled. Lowered her head, almost ritualistically, and showed me the left side of her face.

Skin stretched tight, bone-white and glassy-smooth. Too smooth- the unhealthy sheen of fever-sweat. The jawline sharper than it should have been. Subtly skeletal, as if stripped of an underlying layer of musculature and refurbished with something artificial. Her left eye drooped, very slightly but noticeably, and the skin beneath it was scored with a dense network of white filaments. Scars that seemed to be floating just beneath the surface of her skin- a suspension of threadworms swimming in flesh-colored gelatin.

The neck-flesh just below the jaw was ruled with three ruddy stripes- as if she’d been slapped hard and the finger marks had lingered. The left side of her mouth was preternaturally straight, offering harsh counterpart to the weary eye and giving her smile a lopsided cast that projected an uninvited irony.

She shifted her head again. Her skin caught the light at a different angle, and took on the marbled look of a tea-soaked egg.

Off-kilter. Beauty defiled.

She said to Melissa, “Thank you, darling,” and gave a crooked smile. Part of the left side didn’t smile along.

I realized that- just for the moment- I’d blocked out Melissa’s presence. I turned, with a smile for her. She was staring at us, a hard, watchful look on her face. Suddenly, she turned up the corners of her mouth, forced herself to join in the smile-fest.

Her mother said, “Come here, baby,” and went to her, holding out her arms. Hugging her. Using her height to advantage, cradling, stroking Melissa’s long hair.

Melissa stepped back and looked at me, flushed.

Gina Ramp said, “I’ll be fine, baby. Go on.”

Melissa said, “Have fun,” in a voice on the verge of cracking. Gave one more look back and walked out.

Leaving the door open. Gina Ramp walked over and closed it.

“Please make yourself comfortable, Doctor,” she said, readjusting the tilt of her face so that only the good side was visible. She gestured toward the china service. “Coffee?”

“No, thanks.” I sat in one of the chairs. She returned to the loveseat. Sat perched at the edge, back straight, legs crossed at the ankles, hands in lap- the identical posture Melissa had adopted at my house yesterday.

“So,” she said, smiling again. She leaned forward to adjust one of the teacups, spent more time at it than she had to.

I said, “Good to meet you, Mrs. Ramp.”

A pained look fought with the smile and won. “Finally?”

Before I could answer, she said, “I’m not a terrible person, Dr. Delaware.”

“Of course you aren’t,” I said. Too emphatically. It made her start and take a long look at me. Something about her- about this place- was screwing up my timing. I sat back and kept my mouth shut. She recrossed her legs and shifted her head, as if in response to stage direction. Showing me only her right profile. Stiff and defensively genteel, like a First Lady on a talk show.

I said, “I’m not here to judge you. This is about Melissa’s going away to college. That’s all.”

She tightened her lips and shook her head. “You helped her so much. Despite me.”

“No,” I said. “Because of you.”

She closed her eyes, sucked in her breath, and clawed her knees through the gray dress. “Don’t worry, Dr. Delaware. I’ve come a long way. I can handle harsh truths.”

“The truth, Mrs. Ramp, is that Melissa turned out to be the terrific young woman she is in good part because she got a lot of love and support at home.”

She opened her eyes and shook her head very slowly. “You’re kind, but the truth is that even though I knew I was failing her, I couldn’t pull myself out of my… out of it. It sounds so weak-willed, but…”

“I know,” I said. “Anxiety can be as crippling as polio.”

“Anxiety,” she said. “What a mild word. It’s more like dying. Over and over. Like living on Death Row, never knowing…” She swiveled, revealing a crescent of damaged flesh. “I felt trapped. Helpless and inadequate. So I continued to fail her.”

I said nothing.

She went on: “Do you know that in thirteen years I never attended a single parent-teacher conference? Never applauded at her school plays or chaperoned field trips or met the mothers of the few children she played with. I wasn’t a mother, Dr. Delaware. Not in any true sense of the word. She’s got to resent me for it. Maybe even hate me.”

“Has she given any indication of that?”

“No, of course not. Melissa’s a good girl-too respectful to say what’s on her mind. Even though I’ve tried to get her to.”

She leaned forward again. “Dr. Delaware, she puts on a brave front- feels she always has to be grown up, a perfect little lady. I did that to her- my weakness did.” Touching her bad side. “I turned her into a premature adult and robbed her of her childhood. So I know it’s got to be there- anger. All bottled up inside.”

I said, “I’m not going to sit here and tell you you gave her the ideal upbringing. Or that your fears didn’t influence hers. They did. But throughout it all- from what I saw during her therapy- she perceived you as being nurturant and loving, giving her unconditional love. She still sees you that way.”

She bowed her head, held it with both hands, as if praise hurt.

I said, “When she wet your sheets you held her and didn’t get angry. That means a lot more to a child than parent-teacher conferences.”

She looked up and stared at me. The facial sag more evident than before. Shifting her head, she switched to a profile view. Smiling.

“I can see where you’d be good for her,” she said. “You put forth your point of view with a… force that’s hard to debate.”

“Is there a need for us to debate?”

She bit her lip. One hand flew up and touched her bad side again. “No. Of course not. It’s just that I’ve been working on… honesty. Seeing myself the way I truly am. It’s part of my therapy. But you’re right, I’m not our concern. Melissa is. What can I do to help her?”

“I’m sure you know how ambivalent she is about going away to college, Mrs. Ramp. Right now she’s framing it in terms of her concern about you. Worry that leaving you at this point in your therapy might upset the progress you’ve made. So it’s important for her to hear from you- explicitly- that you’ll be okay. That you’ll continue to make progress with her gone. That you want her to go. If you do.”

“Dr. Delaware,” she said, looking at me straight on, “of course I do. And I have told her that. I’ve been telling her since I found out she’d been accepted. I’m thrilled for her- it’s a wonderful opportunity. She must go!”

Her intensity caught me by surprise.

“What I mean,” she said, “is that I see this as a crucial period for Melissa. Breaking away. Starting a new life. Not that I won’t miss her- of course I will. But I’ve finally gotten to a point where I can think of her the way I should have been doing all along. As the child. I’ve made tremendous progress, Dr. Delaware. I’m ready to take some really giant steps. Look at life differently. But I can’t get Melissa to see that. I know she mouths the words, but she hasn’t changed her behavior.”

“How would you like her to change?”

“She overprotects me. Continues to hover. Ursula- Dr. Cunningham-Gabney- has tried to talk to her about it, but Melissa’s unresponsive. The two of them seem to have a personality conflict. When I try to tell her how well I’m doing, she smiles, gives me a pat, and says “Great, Mom,’ and walks away. Not that I blame her. I let her be the parent for so long. Now I’m paying for it.”

She lowered her gaze again, rested her brow in one hand, and sat that way for a long time. Then:

“I haven’t had an attack in over four weeks, Dr. Delaware. I’m seeing the world for the first time in a very long time, and I feel I can cope with it. It’s like being born again. I don’t want Melissa limiting herself because of me. What can I say to convince her?”

“Sounds like you’re saying the right things. She just may not be ready to hear them.”

“I don’t want to come out and tell her I don’t need her- I could never hurt her that way. And it wouldn’t be true. I do need her. The way any mother needs any daughter. I want us always to be close. And I’m not giving her mixed messages, Doctor- believe me. Dr. Cunningham-Gabney and I have worked on that. Projecting clear communication. Missy just refuses to hear it.”

I said, “Part of the problem is that some of her conflict has nothing to do with you or your progress. Any eighteen-year-old would be anxious about leaving home for the first time. The life Melissa’s led up till now- the relationship between the two of you, the size of this place, the isolation- makes moving out scarier for her than for the average freshman. By focusing on you, she doesn’t have to deal with her own fears.”

“This place,” she said, holding out her hands. “It’s a monstrosity, isn’t it? Arthur collected things, built himself a museum.”

A trace of bitterness. Then quick cover:

“Not that he did it out of ego- that wasn’t Arthur. He was a lover of beauty. Believed in beautifying his world. And he did have exquisite taste. I have no feel for things. I can appreciate a fine painting when it’s placed in front of me, but I’d never accumulate- it’s just not in my nature.”

“Would you ever consider moving?”

Faint smile. “I’m considering lots of things, Dr. Delaware. Once the door opens, it’s hard not to step through. But we- Dr. Cunningham-Gabney and I- are working together to keep me in check, make sure I don’t get ahead of myself. I’ve still got a long way to go. And even if I was ready to dump everything and roam the world, I wouldn’t do that to Melissa- pull everything out from under her.”

She touched the china pot. Smiled and said, “Cold. Are you sure you don’t want me to call down for fresh? Or something to eat- have you had lunch?”

I said, “I’m sure, but thanks anyway.”

“What you said before,” she said. “Avoiding her own conflicts by mothering me. If that’s the case, how can I pull that out from under her?”

“She’ll come to grips with your improvement naturally- gradually- as you continue to make progress. And to be honest, you may not be able to persuade her to go to Harvard before the application deadline’s up.”

She frowned.

I said, “It seems to me there’s something else complicating the situation- jealousy.”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “Ursula’s pointed out how jealous she is.”

“Melissa’s got lots to be jealous of, Mrs. Ramp. She’s been hit with a lot of change over a short period of time, besides your progress: Jacob Dutchy’s death, your remarriage.” The return of a madman… “What makes it even rougher for her is the fact that she takes credit- or blame- for initiating a good deal of the change. For getting you into treatment, introducing you to your husband.”

“I know,” she said. “And it’s true. She did get me into therapy. Nagged me into it, God bless her. And therapy’s helped me cut a window in my cell. Sometimes I feel like such a fool for not doing it sooner, all those years…” She shifted position suddenly, showing me her complete face. Flaunting it.

Saying nothing about her second marriage. I didn’t pursue it.

She stood suddenly, made a fist, held it in front of her, and stared at it. “I’ve got to convince her, somehow.” Tension blanched the scarred side, marbling it again, bleaching the stripes on her neck. “I’m her mother, for God’s sake!”

Silence. The distant whir of a vacuum cleaner.

I said, “You sound pretty convincing right now. Why don’t you call her in and tell her that.”

She thought about that. Lowered the fist but kept it clenched.

“Yes,” she said. “Okay. I will. Let’s do it.”

***

She excused herself, opened the door on the rear wall, and disappeared through the doorway. I heard padded footsteps, the sound of her voice, got up and looked.

She sat on the edge of a canopied bed, in an immense off-white bedroom with a muraled ceiling. Mural of courtesans at Versailles, enjoying life before the deluge.

She sat slightly stooped, bad side unprotected, pressing the mouthpiece of a white-and-gold phone to her lips. Her feet rested on plum-colored carpeting. The bed was covered with a quilted satin spread and the phone rested on a chinoiserie nightstand. High crank windows flanked the bed on both sides- clear glass under pleated, gold-fringed valances. Gilt-framed mirrors, lots of lace and toile and happily pigmented paintings. Enough French antiques to put Marie Antoinette at ease.

She nodded, said something, and put the phone back in its cradle. I returned to my seat. She came out a moment later, saying, “She’s on her way up. Do you mind being here?”

“If Melissa doesn’t mind.”

Smile. “She won’t. She’s quite fond of you. Sees you as her ally.”

I said, “I am her ally.”

“Of course,” she said. “We all need our allies, don’t we.”

***

A few minutes later footsteps sounded from the hall. Gina got up, met Melissa at the door, took her by the hand, and drew her in. Placing both hands on Melissa’s shoulders, she looked down at her solemnly, as if preparing to confer a benediction.

“I’m your mother, Melissa Anne. I’ve made mistakes and been weak and inadequate as a mother, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m your mother and you’re my child.”

Melissa looked at her quizzically, then whipped her head in my direction.

I gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile and shifted my glance to her mother. Melissa followed it.

Gina said, “I know my weakness has put a burden on you, baby. But that’s all going to change. Things are going to be different.”

At the word different, Melissa stiffened.

Gina saw it and drew her close, hugging her. Melissa didn’t fight it, but neither did she yield. “I want us always to be close, baby, but I also want us to live our own lives.”

“We do, Mother.”

“No, we don’t, sweetheart. Not really. We love each other and care about each other- you’re the best daughter a mother could ever hope for. But what we have is too… tangled. We have to untangle it. Get the knots out.”

Melissa pulled away a bit and stared up at her. “What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying, baby, is that going away back east is a golden opportunity for you. Your apple. You earned it. I’m so proud of you- your whole future is waiting and you have the brains and the talent to make the best of it. So take advantage of the opportunity- I insist you take advantage.”

Melissa wriggled free. “You insist?”

“No, I’m not trying to… What I mean, baby, is that-”

“What if I don’t want to take advantage of it?” Melissa’s tone was soft but combative. A prosecutor building the foundation for an assault.

Gina said, “I just think you should go, Melissa Anne.” Some of the conviction had left her voice.

Melissa smiled. “That’s fine, Mother, but what about what I think?”

Gina drew her close once more and pressed her to her breast. Melissa’s face was impassive.

Gina said, “What you think is the most important, baby, but I want to make sure you know what you really think- that your decision isn’t clouded by your worries about me. Because I’m fine, and I’m going to continue to be fine.”

Melissa looked up at her again. Her smile had widened but turned cold. Gina looked away from it while holding tight.

I said, “Melissa, your mother has given a lot of thought to this. She’s certain she can handle things.”

“Is she?”

“Yes, I am,” said Gina. Her voice had risen half an octave. “And I expect you to respect that opinion.”

“I respect all of your opinions, Mother. But that doesn’t mean I have to live my life around them.”

Gina’s mouth opened and closed.

Melissa took hold of her mother’s arms and peeled them off her. Stepping back, she looped her fingers in the belt loops of her jeans.

Gina said, “Please, baby.”

“I’m not a baby, Mother.” Still smiling.

“No. No, you aren’t. Of course you aren’t. I apologize for calling you that- old habits are hard to break. That’s what this is all about- changing. I’m working on changing- you know how hard I’ve been working, Melissa. That means a different life. For all of us. I want you to go to Boston.”

Melissa looked at me, defiant.

I said, “Talk to your mother, Melissa.”

Melissa’s attention swung back to Gina, then to me once more. Her eyes narrowed. “What’s going on here?”

Gina said, “Nothing, ba- Nothing. Dr. Delaware and I have had a very good talk. He’s helped me clarify things even further. I can see why you like him.”

“Can you?”

Gina started to reply, stammered, and stopped.

I said, “Melissa, this family’s going through major changes. It’s rough for everyone. Your mother’s searching for the right way to let you know she’s really okay. So that you don’t feel obligated to take care of her.”

“Yes,” said Gina. “Exactly. I really am okay, honey. Go out and live your own life. Be your own person.

Melissa didn’t move. Her smile had vanished. She was wringing her hands. “Sounds like the grown-ups have decided what’s best for little me.”

“Oh, honey,” said Gina. “That’s not it at all!”

I said, “No one’s decided anything. What’s important is that the two of you keep talking- keep the channels of communication open.”

Gina said, “We sure will. We’ll get through it, won’t we, honey?”

She walked toward her daughter, arms out.

Melissa backed away, into the doorway, braced herself by grasping the doorframe.

“This is great,” she said. “Just great.”

Her eyes blazed. She pointed a finger at me. “This isn’t what I expected from you.”

“Honey!” said Gina.

I got up.

Melissa shook her head and held her hands out, palms-front.

I said, “Melissa-”

Forget it. Just forget it!”

She shuddered with anger and ran out.

I stuck my head out the door, watched her race down the corridor, legs flying, hair flapping.

I considered going after her, then thought better of it and turned back to Gina, trying to conjure up something profound.

But she was in no shape to listen.

Her face had gone ghostly and she was clutching her chest. Mouth open, gasping for breath. Body starting to shake.

The shakes got violent. I rushed to her. She stumbled back, shaking her head, holding me off, her eyes wild.

Reaching into one of the pockets of her dress, she fumbled for what seemed like a very long time, finally pulled out a small L-shaped white plastic inhaler. Inserting the short end in her mouth, she closed her eyes and tried to fasten her lips around the apparatus. But her teeth chattered against the plastic and she had trouble gripping it in her mouth. Our eyes met but hers were glazed and I knew she was somewhere else. Finally she clamped her jaws around the mouthpiece and managed to inhale. Depressed a metal button at the tip of the inhaler’s long end.

A faint hiss sounded. Her cheeks remained hollow. The bad side more hollow. She clutched the inhaler with one hand, grabbed a corner of the loveseat for balance with the other. Held her breath for several seconds before removing the device and collapsing on the couch.

Her chest heaved. I stood there and watched as the rhythm slowed, then sat next to her. She was still shaking; I could feel the vibrations through the sofa cushions. She mouth-breathed, worked at slowing down her respiration. Closed her eyes, then opened them. Saw me and closed them again. Her face was filmed with sweat. I touched her hand. She gave a weak squeeze in return. Her flesh was cold and moist.

We sat together, not moving, not talking. She tried to say something, but nothing came out. She rested her head against the back of the loveseat and stared at the ceiling. Tears filled her eyes.

“That was a small one,” she said in a feeble voice. “I controlled it.”

“Yes, you did.”

The inhaler was still in her hand. She looked at it, then dropped it back in her pocket. Bending forward, she took my hand and squeezed it again. Exhaled. Inhaled. Let out breath in a long, cool, minty stream.

We were so close I could hear her heart beating. But I was focusing on other sounds- listening for footsteps. Thinking of Melissa returning, seeing us that way.

When her hand relaxed, I let it go. It took a couple more minutes for her breathing to return to normal.

I said, “Should I call someone?”

“No, no, I’m fine.” She patted her pocket.

“What’s in the inhaler?”

“Muscle relaxant. Ursula and Dr. Gabney did the research on it. It’s very good. For short term.”

Her face was soaked with sweat, the feathery bangs plastered to her brow. The bad side looked like inflatable plastic.

She said, “Whew.”

I said, “Can I get you some water?”

“No, no, I’ll be fine. Really. It looks worse than it is. This was a small one- the first time in… four weeks… I…”

“It was a tough confrontation.”

She put her hand to her mouth. “Melissa!”

Shooting up, she ran out of the room.

I went after her, following her slender form down one of the dark spokes, to a rear spiral staircase. Sticking close so as not to get lost in the huge house.

11

The stairway bottomed at a short hallway just outside a pantry as big as my living room. We walked through it and into the kitchen, a banquet-sized galley painted custard-yellow and floored with white hexagonal ceramic tiles. There were two walls of coolers and freezers, oiled butcher-block counters, and lots of copper pots hanging from cast-iron ceiling racks.

No cooking smells. A bowl of fruit sat on one of the counters. The industrial eight-burner stove was bare.

Gina Ramp led me out, past a second, smaller kitchen, a silver room, and a paneled dining hall that could accommodate a convention. Looking from side to side, calling out Melissa’s name.

Getting silence in return.

We backtracked, made a couple of turns, and ended in the room with the painted ceiling beams. Two men in tennis whites came through the French doors, holding rackets and wearing towels around their necks. Both were big and well built.

The younger man was in his twenties, with thick shaggy yellow hair worn past his shoulders. A long thin face was dominated by narrow dark eyes and a cleft chin deep enough to hide a diamond. His tan had taken more than one summer to build.

The second man- in his early fifties, I guessed- was thickset but not flabby, a lifelong athlete who’d stayed in condition. Heavy-jawed and blue-eyed. Executive-cut black hair with gray temples, clipped gray mustache precisely as wide as his mouth. Seamed, ruddy complexion. Marlboro Man goes Country Club.

He cocked an eyebrow and said, “Gina? What’s up?” His voice was mellow and resonant, the kind that seems friendly even if it isn’t.

“Have you seen Melissa, Don?”

“Sure, just a minute ago.” Directing his gaze at me. “Something the mat-?”

“Do you know where she is, Don?”

“She left with Noel-”

“With Noel?”

“He was doing the cars, she came running out like a bat out of Hades, said something to him, and the two of them drove off. In the Corvette. Something wrong, Geen?”

“Oh, boy.” Gina sagged.

The mustachioed man put his arm around her shoulder. Cast another searching look at me. “What’s going on?”

Gina forced a smile and fluffed her hair. “It’s nothing, Don. Just a- this is Dr. Delaware. The psychologist I told you about. He and I were trying to talk to Melissa about college and she got upset. I’m sure it’ll blow over.”

He held her arm, pursed his lips in a way that made his mustache peak in the middle, and arched his eyebrows again. Strong and silent. Another one to the camera born…

Gina said, “Doctor, this is my husband, Donald Ramp. Don, Dr. Alex Delaware.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Ramp extended a big hard hand and we shook briefly. The younger man had retreated to a corner of the room.

Ramp said, “They can’t have gotten too far, Geen. If you’d like, I can go after them, see if I can haul ’em back.”

Gina said, “No, it’s okay, Don.” She touched his cheek. “The price of living with a teenager, darling. Anyway, I’m sure she’ll be back fairly soon- maybe they just went to get gas.”

The younger man was examining a jade bowl with a fascination too intense to be genuine. Lifting it, putting it down, lifting it again.

Gina turned to him. “How are you today, Todd?”

The bowl descended and stayed put. “Great, Mrs. Ramp. And you?”

“Muddling along, Todd. How did Don do today?”

The blond man gave her a toothpaste-ad smile and said, “He’s got the moves. All he needs is to work.”

Ramp groaned and stretched. “These old bones rebel against work.” Turning to me: “Doctor, this is Todd Nyquist. My trainer, tennis coach, and all-around Grand Inquisitor.”

Nyquist grinned and touched one finger to his temple. “Doctor.”

Ramp said, “Not only do I suffer, I pay for it.”

Obligatory smiles all around.

Ramp looked at his wife. “You sure there’s nothing I can do, honey?”

“No, Don. We’ll just wait. They’re bound to be back soon. Noel’s not finished yet, is he?”

Ramp looked out the doors, toward the cobbled courtyard. “Doesn’t look like it. The Isotta and the Delahaye are both due for a wax and all he’s been doing so far is washing.”

“Okay,” said Gina. “So they probably did go for gas. They’ll be back, and then Dr. Delaware and I will take up where we left off. You go shower off, mister. Don’t worry about a thing.”

Tight voice. All of them tight. Squeezing out chitchat like meat through a grinder.

Tight silence.

I felt as if I’d wandered into the middle of a collaboration between Noel Coward and Edward Albee.

Gina said, “Drink, anyone?”

Ramp touched his midriff. “Not for me. I’m going for that shower. Good to meet you, Doctor. Thanks for everything.”

I said, “No problem,” not sure what he was thanking me for.

He used one end of the towel to wipe his face, winked at no one in particular, and began walking off. Then he stopped, looked over his shoulder at Nyquist. “Hang in, Todd. See you Wednesday. If you promise to spare the thumbscrews.”

“You bet, Mr. R.,” said Nyquist, grinning again. To Gina: “I could handle a Pepsi, Mrs. R. Or anything else you got that’s cold and sweet.”

Ramp continued to look at him, hesitated as if contemplating return, then walked off.

Nyquist flexed his knees, stretched his neck, ran his fingers through his mane, and checked the netting on his racket.

Gina said, “I’ll get Madeleine to fix you something.”

Nyquist said, “Sure bet,” but his grin died.

Leaving him standing there, she escorted me to the front of the house.

***

We sat in overstuffed chairs in one of the caverns, surrounded by works of genius and fancy. Any space not filled with art was paneled with mirror. All that reflection turned true perspective into a carny joke. Nearly engulfed by cushions, I felt diminished. Gulliver in Brobdingnag.

She shook her head and said, “What a disaster! How could I have handled it better?”

I said, “You did fine. It’s going to take time for her to readjust.”

“She doesn’t have that much time. Harvard needs to be notified.”

“Like I said, Mrs. Ramp, it may not be realistic to expect her to be ready by some arbitrary deadline.”

She didn’t respond to that.

I said, “Suppose she spends a year here- watching you get better. Getting comfortable with the changes. She can always transfer to Harvard during her sophomore year.”

“I guess,” she said. “But I really want her to go- not for me.” Touching her bad side. “For her. She needs to get away. From this place. It’s so- It’s a world to itself. All her needs met, everything done for her. That can be crippling.”

“Sounds like you’re afraid that if she doesn’t leave now she never will.”

She sighed.

“Despite all this,” she said, taking in the room, “all the beauty, it can be malignant. A house with no doors. Believe me, I know.”

That startled me. I thought I’d concealed it, but she said, “What is it?”

“The phrase you just used- a house with no doors. When I treated her, Melissa used to draw houses without doors and windows.”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, my.” Touching the pocket that held the inhaler.

“Did you ever use the phrase in front of her?”

“I don’t think I did- that would be terrible if I did, wouldn’t it? Putting that image into her head.”

“Not necessarily,” I said. Hear ye, hear ye, the great yea-sayer cometh. “It gave her a concrete image to deal with. When she got better she started drawing houses with doors. I doubt this place will ever be for her what it was for you.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

“I can’t be sure of anything,” I said gently. “I just don’t think we need to assume that your prison is hers.”

Despite the gentleness, it wounded her. “Yes, of course you’re right. She’s her own person- I shouldn’t see her as my clone.” Pause. “So you think it’ll be okay for her to live here?”

“In the interim.”

“How long of an interim?”

“Long enough for her to get comfortable about leaving. From what I saw nine years ago, she’s pretty good at pacing herself.”

She said nothing, gazed at a ten-foot grandfather clock veneered with tortoise shell.

I said, “Maybe they decided to go for a drive.”

“Noel hasn’t finished his work,” she said. As if that settled it.

She got up, walked around the room slowly, staring at the floor. I began taking a closer look at the paintings. Flemish and Dutch and Renaissance Italian. Works I felt I should have been able to identify. But the pigments were brighter and fresher than any I’d seen in museum Old Masters; some of them bordered on lurid. I remembered what Jacob Dutchy had said about Arthur Dickinson’s passion for restoration. Realized how much of a dead man’s aura remained in the house.

House as monument.

Mausoleum sweet mausoleum.

From across the room, she said, “I feel terrible. I meant to thank you. Right off, as soon as we were introduced. For all you did years ago, as well as what you’re doing now. But we got into things and I forgot. Please forgive me. And accept my disgracefully belated thanks.”

I said, “Accepted.”

She looked at the clock again. “I do hope they get back soon.”

***

They didn’t.

A half hour passed- thirty very long minutes filled with small-talk and a crash course in Flemish art delivered with robotic enthusiasm by my hostess. Throughout it all I kept hearing Dutchy’s voice. Wondered what the voice of the man who’d taught him sounded like.

When she ran out of things to say, she stood and said, “Maybe they did go out for a drive. There’s no sense in your waiting around. I’m so sorry for wasting your time.”

Pushing myself up from the quicksand cushions, I followed her on a furniture-strewn obstacle course that ended at the front doors.

She opened one of them and said, “When she does come home, should I get right into it with her?”

“No, I wouldn’t push it. Let her behavior be your guide. When she’s ready to talk, you’ll know it. If you want me to be there next time you have a discussion, and that suits Melissa, I can be. But she may be angry at me. Feel I betrayed her.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to spoil things between you.”

“That can be fixed,” I said. “What’s important is what goes on between you.

She nodded. Patted her pocket. Came closer and touched my face, the way she’d touched her husband’s. Gave me a close-up look at her scars- a white brocade- and kissed my cheek.

***

Back on the freeway. Back on planet Earth.

Sitting in the jam at the downtown interchange, I listened to the Gipsy Kings and tried not to think about whether I’d screwed up. Thought about it anyway and decided I’d done the best I could.

When I got home I phoned Milo. He picked up and growled, “Yeah?”

“Gee, what a friendly greeting.”

“Keeps away scambags trying to peddle bullshit and geeks taking surveys. What’s up?”

“Ready to get to work on the ex-con thing?”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it, figure fifty an hour plus expenses is reasonable. That going to sit okay with the clients?”

“I didn’t have a chance to get into the financial details yet. But I wouldn’t worry- there’s no shortage of funds. And the client says she has full access to plenty.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“She’s only eighteen and-”

“You want me to work for the kid herself, Alex? Jesus, how many cookie jars we talking about?”

“This is no ditsy teenager, Milo. She’s had to grow up fast- too fast. And she has her own money, assured me payment would be no problem. I just need to make sure she realizes exactly what it entails. Thought I’d get to it today, but something else came up.”

“The kid herself,” he said. “Do I look like Mister Rogers or something?”

“Well,” I said, “I know you like me just the way I am.”

He said, “Jesus,” again. Then: “Tell me more about this. Who, exactly, got damaged and what kind of damage.”

I started describing the acid attack on Gina Ramp.

He said, “Whoa. Sounds like the McCloskey case.”

“You know it?”

“I know of it. It was a few years before my time, but it was a teaching case at the academy. Interrogation procedures.”

“Any particular reason?”

“The weirdness of it. And the guy who taught the course- Eli Savage- was one of the original interrogators.”

“Weird in what way?”

“In terms of motive. Cops are like anyone else- they like to classify, reduce things to basics. Money, jealousy, revenge, passion, or some sort of sexual kink sums up ninety-nine percent of your violent-crime motives. This one just didn’t fit any of those. The way I remember learning it, McCloskey and the victim had once had a thing going, but it ended friendly, half a year before he had her burned. No pining away on his part, no poison pen or love letters or anonymous phone calls or any of the harassment you typically see in an unrequited passion situation. And she wasn’t going out with any other guys, so jealousy seemed out of the question. Money wasn’t a strong bet because he had no insurance out on her, no one discovered any way he’d made a dime off the attack, and he actually paid out plenty to the yog who did the dirty work. In terms of revenge, there was some speculation that he blamed her for his business going bad- he had a modeling agency, I think.”

“I’m impressed.”

“Don’t be. You don’t forget a case like that- I remember they showed us photos of her face. Before and after and during- she had tons of surgery. It was a real mess. I kept wondering what kind of person could do that to someone else. Now, of course, I know better, but those were the days of sweet innocence. Anyway, in terms of the money motive, it turns out losing the agency had nothing to do with her either. McCloskey was on the skids due to his drinking and some very heavy doping, and he himself went out of his way to make that clear during his interrogation. Kept telling the detectives he’d fucked up his life, begged to be put out of his misery. Wanting everyone to know that his putting the contract out on her had nothing to do with business.”

“What did it have to do with?”

“That’s the big question mark. He refused to say, no matter how hard they pressed him. Turned deaf and mute any time the issue of motive came up. Leaving only the psychopath angle, but no one uncovered any history of violence- he was a punk and an asshole, liked to hang around gangsters, do the Vegas bit. But that was more of a pose- everyone who knew him said he was a weenie.”

“Weenies can snap.”

“Or get elected to office. So, sure, maybe he was faking it. Maybe he was a goddam sadist and hid it so well, no one ever figured it out. That was Savage’s hunch- something psychological, maybe kinky. The case stuck in his craw. He prided himself on being a top-notch questioner. He ended the lecture with this speech about how McCloskey’s motive didn’t really matter; what counted was the asshole was behind bars for a long time, and that was our job: put ’em away, let the shrinks figure ’em out.”

I said, “A long time’s up.”

“How long did he stay in?”

“Thirteen years on a twenty-three-year sentence- time off for good behavior. Then they gave him parole for six.”

“Usually parole’s limited to three- probably made some kind of a deal.” He grimaced. “Par for the course. Burn someone’s face, rape a baby, whatever, attend remedial reading class and don’t get caught shanking anyone and you walk in half the time.” He paused, said, “Thirteen, huh? That would be some time ago. And you’re saying he just got back to town?”

I nodded. “He spent most of his parole in New Mexico and Arizona. Working on an Indian reservation.”

“The old do-gooder scam.”

“Six years is a long time to scam.”

“But who knows if he behaved himself for six years- who knows how many dead Indians paid for it. Even if he did, six isn’t that long if the alternative is shoveling shit in some landfill or doing more time. Did he also pull a Chuckie Colson and find Jesus?”

“I don’t know.”

“What else do you know about him?”

“Just that he’s off parole, free and clear, and that his last parole officer’s named Bayliss and he’s ready to retire or already has.”

“Sounds like your eighteen-year-old’s a pretty good sleuth herself.”

“She learned all of this from one of the servants- a guy named Dutchy, kind of a super-butler. He kept tabs on McCloskey from the time he was convicted. Very protective of the whole family. But he’s dead now.”

“Ah,” he said. “Leaving the helpless rich to protect themselves. Has McCloskey tried to get in touch with the family?”

“No. As far as I know, the victim and her husband aren’t even aware he’s back in town. Melissa- the girl- knows and it’s hanging over her head.”

“For good reason,” he said.

“So you do think McCloskey’s dangerous.”

“Who knows? On the one hand you’ve got the fact that he’s been out of jail for six years and hasn’t made any moves. On the other, you’ve got the fact that he left the Indians and came back here. Maybe there’s a good reason that has nothing to do with nastiness. Maybe not. Bottom line is it would be a smart idea to find out. Or at least try.”

“Ergo…”

“Yeah, ergo. Time to sharpen up the old private eye. Okay, if she wants me to, I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Milo.”

“Yeah, yeah. The thing is, Alex, even if he does have a solid reason for being back, I’d still be concerned.”

“Why’s that?”

“What I told you before- the motive thing. The fact that no one knows why the hell he did it. No one ever got a fix on him. Maybe thirteen years opened him up and he blabbed to a cellmate. Or talked to some jail shrink. But if he didn’t, that means he’s a secretive fucker. Mucho patient. And that pushes my buttons. Fact is, if I was less of a macho, invincible guy, that would goddam well scare me.”

12

After he hung up I thought of calling San Labrador, but decided to let Melissa and Gina try to work things out.

I went down to the pond, tossed pellets to the koi, and sat facing the waterfall. The fish were more active than usual but seemed uninterested in food. They were chasing one another, in tight formations of three or four. Racing and splashing and bumping against the rock rims.

Puzzled, I bent down and got close to the water. The fish ignored me, continued circling.

Then I saw it. Males chasing females.

Spawn. Shiny clusters clinging to the irises that sprouted in the corners of the pond. Pale caviar, fragile as soap bubbles, glistening under the setting sun.

First time in all the years I’d had the pond. Maybe it meant something.

I crouched and watched for a while, wondering if the fish would eat the eggs before they hatched. If any of the young would survive.

I felt a sudden urge to rescue but knew it was out of my hands. Nowhere to put the spawn- professional breeders kept multiple ponds. Removing the eggs and putting them in buckets would kill all chances of survival.

Nothing to do but wait.

Nothing like impotence to round off a charming day.

I went back up to the house and made dinner: a grilled minute steak, salad, and a beer. Ate it in bed, listening to Perlman and Zukerman do Mozart on CD, most of me getting lost in the music, a small segment of consciousness standing guard, waiting for a call from San Labrador.

The concert ended. No call. Another disc cued itself. The miracle of technology. The CD player was state-of-the-art. A gift from a man who preferred machines to people.

Another dynamic duo took center stage: Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd.

Brazilian rhythms didn’t do the trick either. The phone remained mute.

More of me slipped away from the music. I thought of Joel McCloskey, apparently remorseful but keeping his motive hidden. Thought of how he’d shattered Gina Paddock’s life. Scars, visible and otherwise. The hooks that people embedded in one another while trolling for love. The agony when the barbs had to come out.

Impulsively, without thinking it through, I phoned San Antonio.

A stuffed-sinus female twang said, “Yay-lo.” I heard TV noise in the background. Comedy from the sound of it: flat laughter that rose, peaked, and ebbed in an electronic tide.

The stepmother.

I said, “Hello, Mrs. Overstreet. This is Alex Delaware, calling from Los Angeles.”

A moment of silence. “Uh- hi, Doc. How’re yew?”

“Fine. And you?”

Sigh almost long enough for me to recite the alphabet. “Good as can be.”

“How’s Mr. Overstreet?”

“Well… we’re all praying and hoping for the best, Doc. How’s things in L.A.? Haven’t been there in years. I bet everything’s bigger and faster and noisier and whatever- that’s the way life always seems to go, doesn’t it? You should see Dallas and Houston, and down here, too, though not as much down here- we got a ways to go before our troubles get really big.”

Word assault. Feeling as if I’d been hit hard in the end zone, I said, “Life goes on.”

“If you’re lucky, it does.” Sigh. “But anyway, enough philosophizing- that isn’t gonna help anyone or anything. I expect yew’ll be wanting to talk to Linda.”

“If she’s available.”

“That’s all she is, sir. Available. Poor thang never leaves the house, though I keep telling her it’s not natural for a girl her age to be just sittin’ around, playing nursie, getting all gloomy with no letup. Not that I’m suggesting, mind you, that she go out and live the high life every night, what with her daddy being the way he is, no telling what could happen at any minute. So she daren’t do anything she might feel regretful for later, mind you. But all this sitting can’t bring good to anyone. To herself, especially. If you catch what I mean.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Gotta figure it this way: tapioca pudding that doesn’t get eaten develops a skin and turns hard and crusty around the edges and soon it’s no good for anyone. Same for a woman. That’s as true as the Pledge of Allegiance, believe me.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Anyway… I’ll go get her, tell her you’re calling long distance.”

Clunk.

Shouts over the network babble:

Leen-da! Leen-da, it’s for yew!… Linda, the pho-one! It’s him, Linda-yew know. C’mon, hurry, girl, it’s long distance!”

Footsteps, then a harried voice: “Let me take this in another room.”

A few moments later: “Okay- one second- I’ve got it. Hang up, Dolores!”

Hesitation. Click. Demise of the laugh-track.

Sigh.

“Hi, Alex.”

“Hi.”

“That woman. How long did she chew your ear off?”

“Let’s see,” I said. “Part of one lobe’s gone.”

She laughed without heart. “It’s amazing I’ve got any of mine left. Amazing Daddy hasn’t… So… how are you?”

“Fine. How is he?”

“Up and down. One day he looks fine; the next he can’t get out of bed. The surgeon says he definitely needs the operation but is too weak to go through it right now- too congestive, and they’re still not sure how many arteries are involved. They’re trying to stabilize him with rest and medicine, get him strong enough for more tests. I don’t know… What can you do? That’s the way things go. So… how are you? I already asked you that, didn’t I?”

“Keeping busy.”

“That’s good, Alex.”

“The koi spawned.”

“Pardon?”

“The koi- the fish in the pond- are laying eggs. First time they’ve ever done it.”

“How nice,” she said. “So now you’ll be a daddy.”

“Yup.”

“Ready for the responsibility?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’re talking multiple births.” If any.

She said, “Well, look at it this way. At least there’ll be no diapers to deal with.”

Both of us laughed, said “So…” at the same time, and laughed again. Synchrony. But stilted. Like bad summer-stock theater.

She said, “Been down to the school?”

“Last week. Everything seems to be going well.”

“Real well, from what I hear. I spoke to Ben a couple of days ago. He’s turned out to be a bang-up principal.”

“He’s a nice guy,” I said. “Organized, too. You made a good recommendation.”

“Yeah, he is. Very organized.” She gave another heartless chuckle. “Wonder if I’ll have a job when I get back.”

“I’m sure you will. Made any plans, yet- in terms of getting back?”

“No,” she said sharply. “How in the world can I?”

I was silent.

She said, “I didn’t mean to snap, Alex. It’s just been hell… waiting. Sometimes I think waiting’s the hardest thing in the world. Even worse than… Anyway, no sense obsessing on it. It’s all part of growing up and being a big girl and facing reality, isn’t it?”

“I’d say you’ve had more than your share of reality lately.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Good for toughening up the old hide.”

“I kind of like your hide the way it is.”

Pause. “Alex, thanks for coming out last month. The three days you spent out here were the best days I’ve had.”

“Want me to come out again?”

“I wish I could say yes, but I’d be no good to you.”

“You don’t have to be good.”

“That’s sweet of you to say but… no- it just wouldn’t work out. I need to… be with him. Make sure he gets good care.”

“I take it Dolores hasn’t become much of a nurse?”

“You take it correctly. She’s the original Helpless Hannah- a broken nail’s a major tragedy. Till now she’s been one of those lucky idiots, never had to deal with anything like this. But the sicker he gets, the more she falls apart. And when she falls apart, she talks. Lord, how she talks. I don’t know how Daddy tolerates it. Thank God I’m here to shelter him. It’s as if she’s bad weather- a wordstorm.”

I said, “I know. I got caught in the downpour.”

“Poor you.”

“I’ll survive.”

Silence. I tried to conjure her face- blond hair against my chest. The feel of our bodies… The images wouldn’t come.

“Anyway,” she said, sounding very tired.

“Is there anything I can do for you long distance?”

“Thanks, but I can’t think of anything, Alex. Just think good thoughts about me. And take care of yourself.”

“You, too, Linda.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will.”

She said, “I think I hear him coughing… Yeah, I sure do. Got to be going.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

***

I changed into shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers, and tried to run off the phone call and the twelve hours that had preceded it. Got home just as the sun was setting, showered, and put on my ratty yellow bathrobe and rubber thongs. After dark I went back down to the garden and ran a flashlight over the surface of the water. The fish were inert; even the light didn’t arouse them.

Postcoital bliss? Some of the egg clusters seemed to have dissipated, but several remained, adhering to the pond walls.

After I’d been down there for a quarter of an hour, I heard the phone. News from San Labrador, finally. Hopefully, mother and daughter had started to talk.

I vaulted up the stairs to the landing and made it into the house in time to catch it on the fifth ring.

“Hello.”

“Alex?” Familiar voice. Familiar, though I hadn’t heard it in a long time. This time the images tumbled out like vending-machine candy.

“Hello, Robin.”

“You sound out of breath. Everything okay?”

“Fine. Just made a mad dash up from the garden.”

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“No, no. What’s up?”

“Nothing much. Just wanted to say hi.”

I thought her voice lacked buoyancy, but it had been a while since I’d been an expert on anything to do with her. “Hi. How’ve you been doing?”

“Just great. Working on an arch-top for Joni Mitchell. She’s going to use it on her next album.”

“Terrific.”

“Lots of hand-carving. I’m enjoying the challenge. What’ve you been up to?”

“Working.”

“That’s good, Alex.”

Same thing Linda had said. Identical inflections. The Protestant ethic, or something about me?

I said, “How’s Dennis?”

“Gone. Flew the coop.”

“Oh.”

“It’s okay, Alex. It was long-brewing- no great shakes.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not trying to be a tough broad, Alex, say it didn’t affect me at all. It did. In the beginning. Even though it was mutual, there’s always that… empty space. But I’m over it. It wasn’t like- What he and I had was- I mean, it had its merits as well as its problems. But it was different… from you and me.”

“It would have to be.”

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t know if there’ll ever be anything like what we had. That’s not a manipulation, just the way I feel.”

My eyelids began to ache.

I said, “I know.”

“Alex,” she said in a pinched voice, “don’t feel pressured to respond- in any way. God, that sounds so ridiculous. I’m so afraid of going out on a limb here…”

“What is it?”

“I’m feeling really lousy tonight, Alex. I could really use a friend.”

I heard myself saying, “I’m your friend. What’s the problem?”

So much for steely resolve.

“Alex,” she said timidly. “Could it be face-to-face, not just over the phone?”

“Sure.”

She said, “My place or yours?” then laughed too loudly.

I said, “I’ll come to you.”

***

I drove to Venice as if in a dream. Parked in back of the storefront on Pacific, impervious to the graffiti and the trash smells, the shadows and sounds that filled the alley.

By the time I reached the front door she had it open. Dim lights touched upon the hulls of heavy machinery. Wood-sweetness and lacquer-bite floated forth from the workshop, mixing with her perfume- one I’d never smelled before. It made me feel jealous and antsy and thrilled.

She had on a gray-and-black floor-length kimono, the bottom hems flecked with sawdust. Curves through silk. Slender wrists. Bare feet.

Her auburn curls were lustrous and loose, tumbling around her shoulders. Fresh makeup, age lines I’d never seen. The heart-shaped face I’d woken up to so many mornings. Still beautiful- as familiar as morning. But some region of it new, uncharted. Journeys she’d taken alone. It made me sad.

Her dark eyes burned with shame and longing. She forced herself to look into mine.

Her lip trembled and she shrugged.

I took her in my arms, felt her wrap around me and adhere, a second skin. Found her mouth and her heat, lifted her in my arms, and carried her up to the loft.

***

The first thing I felt the next morning was confusion- a desolate bafflement, throbbing like a hangover, though we hadn’t drunk. The first thing I heard was a slow rhythmic rasp- a leisurely samba-beat from down below.

Empty bed beside me. Some things never change.

Sitting up, I looked over the loft rail and saw her working. Hand-sanding the rosewood back of a guitar clamped to a padded vise. Hunched at her bench, wearing denim overalls, safety goggles, and a surgical mask, her hair tied up in a curly knot, bittersweet-chocolate curls of wood collecting at her feet.

I watched her for a while, then got dressed and went downstairs. She didn’t hear me, kept working, and I had to step directly in front of her to catch her attention. Even then there was a delay before our eyes met; her focus, narrowed and intense, was aimed on the richly patterned wood.

Finally she stopped, placing the file on the bench top and pulling down the mask. The goggles were filmed with pinkish dust, making her eyes look bloodshot.

“This is it- the one for Joni,” she said, cranking open the vise, lifting the instrument, and rotating it to give me a frontal view. “Your basic carved belly, but instead of maple she wants rosewood for the back and sides with only a minimal arch- should be interesting to hear it.”

I said, “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” She put the guitar back in the vise, kept her glance lowered even after the instrument was secured. Her fingers grazed the file. “Sleep well?”

“Great. How about you?”

“Great, too.”

“Feel like breakfast?”

“Not really,” she said. “There’s plenty in the fridge-mi fridge es su fridge. Feel free.”

I said, “I’m not hungry either.”

Her fingernails drummed the file. “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Not wanting breakfast.”

“Major felony,” I said. “You’re busted.”

She smiled, looked down at the bench again, then back at me. “You know how it is- the momentum. I woke up early- five-fifteen. Because I really didn’t sleep well. Not because of- I was just restless, thinking about this.” Caressing the guitar’s convex back and tapping it. “Still trying to figure out exactly how I was going to get into the grain. This is Brazilian, quarter sawn- can you imagine how much I paid for a piece this thick? And how long I had to look to find one this wide? She wants a one-piece back, so I can’t afford to mess it up. Knowing that jams me up- it’s been slow going. But this morning I got into it pretty easily. So I kept going- I guess it just swept me along. What time is it?”

“Seven-ten.”

“You’re kidding,” she said, flexing her fingers. “Can’t believe I’ve been working for almost two hours.” Flexing again.

I said, “Sore?”

“No, I feel great. Been doing these hand exercises to ward off the cramps and it’s really working.”

She touched the file again.

I said, “You’re on a roll, kiddo. Don’t stop now.”

I kissed the top of her head. She took hold of my wrist with one hand, used the other to push the goggles up on her brow. Her eyes really were bloodshot. Poor goggle fit or tears?

“Alex, I-”

I placed a finger over her lips and kissed her left cheek. Remnants of the perfume, now familiar, tickled my nose. Mixed with wood dust and sweat- a cocktail that brought back too many memories.

I freed my wrist. She grabbed it, pressed it to her cheek. Our pulses merged.

“Alex,” she said, looking up at me, blinking hard. “I didn’t set it up to happen this way- please believe me. What I said about friendship was true.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for.”

“Somehow I feel there is.”

I said nothing.

“Alex, what’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know.”

She lowered my hand, pulled away, and faced the workbench.

“What about her?” she said. “The teacher.”

The teacher. I’d told her Linda was a school principal.

Demotion in service of the ego.

I said, “She’s in Texas. Indefinitely- sick father.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that. Anything serious?”

“Heart problems. He’s not doing too well.”

She turned, faced me, blinked hard again. Memories of her own father’s sludged arteries? Or maybe it was the dust.

“Alex,” she said, “I don’t want to- I know I have no right to ask this, but what’s your… understanding with her?”

I moved to the foot of the bench, leaned on it with both hands, and stared up at the corrugations on the steel ceiling.

“There is no understanding,” I said. “We’re friends.”

“Would this hurt her?”

“I don’t imagine it would make her whoop for joy, but I’m not planning on submitting a written report.”

The anger in my voice was strong enough to make her clutch the bench top.

I said, “Listen, I’m sorry. This is just a lot to deal with and I’m feeling… jammed up, myself. Not because of her- maybe that’s part of it. But most of it is us. Being together, all of a sudden. The way it was last night… Shit, how long’s it been? Two years?”

“Twenty-five months,” she said. “But who’s counting.” She put her head on my chest, touched my ear, touched my neck.

“It could have been twenty-five hours,” I said. “Or twenty-five years.”

She inhaled deeply. “We fit,” she said. “I forgot how well.”

She came to me, reached up and held my shoulders. “Alex, what we had- it’s like a tattoo. You’ve got to cut deeply to remove it.”

“I was thinking in terms of fishhooks. Yanking them out.”

She flinched and touched her arm.

I said, “Choose your analogy. Either way it’s major pain.”

We stared at each other, tried to temper the silence with smiles, and failed.

She said, “There could be something again, Alex- why shouldn’t there be?”

Answers flooded my head, a babel of replies, contradictory jabber. Before I could pick a reason, she said, “Let’s at least think about it. What can we lose by thinking about it?”

I said, “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t not think about it. You own too much of me.”

Her eyes got wet. “I’ll take what I can get.”

I said, “Happy carving,” and turned to leave.

She called out my name.

I stopped and looked back. She had her hands on her hips and her face was contorted in that little-girl scrunch that women never seem to outgrow. Prelude to tears- probably carried on the X chromosome. Before the valves opened full-force she yanked down her goggles, picked up her file, turned her back on me, and began to scrape.

I left hearing the same rasp-rasp samba that had greeted me upon waking. Felt no desire to dance.

***

Knowing I had to fill the day with something impersonal or go mad, I drove to the University Biomedical Library to seek out references for my monograph. I found plenty of stuff that looked promising on the computer screen, but little that turned out to be relevant. By the time noon rolled around I’d generated lots of heat, very little light, and knew it was time to buckle down and wrestle with my own data.

Instead I used a pay phone just outside the library to call in for messages. Nothing from San Labrador, six others, no emergencies. I returned all of them. Then I drove into Westwood Village, paid too much for parking, found a coffee shop masquerading as a restaurant, and read the paper while chewing my way through a rubbery hamburger.

By the time I got home I’d managed to push the day along to 3:00 P.M. I checked the pond. A bit more spawn, but the fish still looked subdued. I wondered if they were all right- I’d read somewhere that they could damage themselves in the throes of passion.

The uniforms changed, but the game never did.

I fed them, picked dead leaves out of the garden. Three-twenty. Light housekeeping took up another half hour.

Bereft of excuses, I went into the library, pulled out my manuscript, and began working. It went well. When I finally looked up, I’d been going for almost two hours.

I thought of Robin. You know how it is- the momentum.

The fit…

The impetus of loneliness, propelling us toward each other.

Fishhooks.

Back to work.

The drudgery defense.

I picked up my pen and tried. Kept at it until the words ran out and my chest got tight. It was seven by the time I got up from the desk, and when the phone rang I was grateful.

“Dr. Delaware, this is Joan at your service. I’ve got a call from a Melissa Dickinson. She says it’s an emergency.”

“Put her on, please.”

Click.

“Dr. Delaware!”

“What is it, Melissa?”

“It’s Mother!”

“What about her?”

“She’s gone! Oh God, please help me. I don’t knowhatodo!”

“Okay, Melissa. Slow down and tell me exactly what happened.”

“She’s gone! She’s gone! I can’t find her anywhere- not on the grounds or in any of the rooms. I was looking- we all were looking- and she’s not here! Please, Dr. Delaware-”

“How long’s she been gone, Melissa?”

“Since two-thirty! She left for the clinic for her three o’clock group, was supposed to be back by five-thirty, and it’s… seven-oh-four and they don’t know where she is either. Oh, God!”

“Who’s they?”

“The clinic. The Gabneys. That’s where she went- she had a group meeting… from three to… five. Usually she goes with Don… or someone else. Once I took her, but this time…” Panting. Gulping for air.

I said, “If you feel you’re losing your breath, find a paper bag and breathe into it slowly.”

“No… no, I’m okay. Got to tell you… everything.”

“I’m listening.”

“Yes, yes. Where was I? Oh, God…”

“Usually she goes with someone but this ti-”

“She was supposed to go with him- Don- but she decided to go herself! Insisted on it! I told her- I didn’t think that was- But she was stubborn- insisted she could handle it, but she couldn’t! I knew she couldn’t and I was right- she couldn’t! But I don’t want to be right, Dr. Delaware. I don’t care about being right or having my way or anything! Oh, God, I just want her back, want her to be okay!”

“She didn’t show up at the clinic at all?”

“No! And they didn’t call till four to let us know. They should have called right away, shouldn’t they?”

“How long a ride is it to the clinic?”

“Twenty minutes. At the most. She gave herself a half hour, which was more than enough. They should have known when she didn’t- If they’d called right away, we could have looked for her right away. She’s been gone for over four hours. Oh, God!”

“Is it possible,” I said, “that she changed her mind and went somewhere else instead of the clinic?”

Where! Where would she go!”

“I don’t know, Melissa, but after talking to your mother, I can understand her wanting to… improvise. Break free of her routine. It’s not that uncommon in patients who conquer their fears- sometimes they get a little reckless.”

“No!” she said. “She wouldn’t do that, not without calling. She knows how much it would worry me. Even Don’s concerned, and nothing gets to him. He called the police and they went out looking for her but they haven’t found her or the Dawn-”

“She was driving her Rolls-Royce?”

“Yes-”

“Then she shouldn’t be too hard to spot, even in San Labrador.”

“Then why hasn’t anyone seen it? How could nobody have seen her, Dr. Delaware!”

I thought of the empty streets and had a ready answer for that.

“I’m sure someone did,” I said. “Maybe she ran into mechanical problems- it’s an old car. Even Rolls aren’t perfect.”

“No way. Noel keeps all the cars in top shape, and the Dawn was like new. And if she did run into problems, she’d call! She wouldn’t do this to me. She’s like an infant, Dr. Delaware- she can’t survive out there, doesn’t have any idea of what it’s like out there. Oh, God, what if she had an attack and drove off a cliff or something and is lying there, helpless… I can’t take this anymore. This is just too much, too much!”

Sobs poured out of the receiver, so loud I pulled my ear away involuntarily.

I heard a catch of breath. “Melissa-”

“I’m… freaking out… can’t… breathe…”

“Relax,” I commanded. “You can breathe. You can breathe just fine. Do it. Breathe regularly and slowly.”

Strangulated gasp from the other end.

Breathe, Melissa. Do it. In… and out. In… and out. Feel your muscles loosen and expand with every breath you take. Feel yourself relax, just relax. Relax.

“I…”

“Relax, Melissa. Don’t try to talk. Just breathe and relax. Deeper and deeper- in… and out. In… and out. Your whole body’s getting heavier, deeper and deeper relaxed. Think of pleasant things- your mother walking through the door. She’s okay. She’s going to be okay.”

“But-”

“Just listen to me, Melissa. Do what I say. Freaking out can’t help her. Getting upset can’t help her. Worrying can’t help her. You need to be at your best, so keep breathing and relaxing. Are you sitting down?”

“No, I uh-”

“Find a chair and sit down.”

Rustle and bump. “Okay… I’m sitting.”

“Good. Now find a comfortable position. Stretch your feet out and relax. Breathe slowly and deeply. Every breath you take will make you deeper and deeper relaxed.”

Silence.

“Melissa?”

“Okay… I’m okay.” Whoosh of breath.

“Good. Would you like me to come out there?”

A whispered yes.

“Then you’ll have to hold on long enough for me to get out there. It will take at least half an hour.”

“Okay.”

“You’re sure? I can stay on the phone until you’re settled.”

“No… Yes. I’m okay. Please come. Please.”

“Hang in there,” I said. “I’m out the door.”

13

Empty streets made lonelier by the darkness. As I drove up Sussex Knoll, a pair of headlights appeared in my rearview mirror and remained there, constant as the moon. When I turned off at the pine gates of Number 10, a blinking red light appeared over the two white ones.

I stopped, switched off the engine, and waited. An amplified voice said, “Out of the car, sir.”

I complied. A San Labrador police cruiser was nudging my rear bumper, its brights on, its engine running. I could smell the gasoline, feel the heat from its radiator. The red blinker colored my white shirt pink, erased it, colored again.

The driver’s door opened and an officer got out, one hand on his hip. Big and wide. He lifted something. A flashlight beam blinded me and I raised an arm reflexively.

“Both hands up in the air where I can see them, sir.”

More compliance. The light traveled up and down my body.

Squinting, I said, “I’m Dr. Alex Delaware- Melissa Dickinson’s doctor. I’m expected.”

The cop stepped closer, caught some of the light from the halogen fixture over the left gatepost, and turned into a young white man with a heavy, prognathous jaw, baby skin, and pug features. His hat was pulled low over his forehead. On a sitcom he’d be called Moose.

“Who’s expecting you, sir?” The beam lowered, illuminating my trousers.

“The family.”

“What family?”

“Dickinson- Ramp. Melissa Dickinson called me about her mother and asked me to come over. Has Mrs. Ramp shown up yet?”

“What’d you say your name was, sir?”

“Delaware. Alex Delaware.” With a tilt of my head I indicated the talk box. “Why don’t you call over to the house and verify that?”

He digested that as if it were profound.

I said, “Can I put my hands down?”

“Move to the rear of your car, sir. Put your hands on the trunk.” Keeping his eyes on me, he advanced to the box. Push of a button and Don Ramp’s voice said, “Yes?”

“This is Officer Skopek, San Labrador police, sir. I’m down by your front gate, got a gentleman here who claims to be a friend of the family.”

“Who’s that?”

“Mr. Delaware.”

“Oh. Yes. It’s okay, officer.”

Another voice came out of the box, loud and dictatorial: “Anything yet, Skopek?”

“No, sir.”

“Keep looking.”

“Yes, sir.” Skopek touched his hat and turned off his flashlight.

The pine gates began sliding inward. I opened the door of the Seville.

Skopek followed me and waited until I’d turned the ignition on. When I put the Seville in gear, he stuck his face in the driver’s window and said, “Sorry for the inconvenience, sir.” Not sounding sorry at all.

“Just following orders, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

***

Spotlights and low-voltage accent beams set among the trees created a nightscape Walt Disney would have cherished. A full-size Buick sedan was parked in front of the mansion. Rear searchlight and lots of antennas.

Ramp answered the door wearing a blue blazer, gray flannels, blue-striped button-down shirt with a perfect collar roll, and wine-colored pocket square. Despite the fashion statement, he looked drawn. And angry.

“Doctor.” No handshake. He walked ahead of me, fast, leaving me to close the door.

I stepped into the entry. Another man stood in front of the green staircase, examining a cuticle. As I got closer, he looked up. Looked me over.

Early sixties, just under six feet and hefty, with a big, hard paunch, thin, gray, Brylcreemed hair, meaty features filling a broad face the color of raw sweetbreads. Steel-rimmed glasses over a fleshy nose, bladder jowls compressing a small, fussy mouth. He had on a gray suit, cream shirt, gray-and-black striped tie. Masonic stickpin. American flag lapel pin. VFW lapel pin. Beeper on his belt. Size thirteen wingtips on his feet.

He kept scrutinizing.

Ramp said, “Doctor, this is our police chief, Clifton Chickering. Chief, Dr. Delaware, Melissa’s psychiatrist.”

Chickering’s first look told me I’d been the topic of discussion. The second one let me know what he thought of psychiatrists. I figured telling him I was a psychologist wouldn’t alter that much, but I did it anyway.

He said, “Doctor.” He and Ramp looked at each other. He nodded at Ramp. Ramp glared at me.

“Why the devil,” he said, “didn’t you tell us that bastard was back in town?”

“McCloskey?”

“Do you know of some other bastard who’d want to harm my wife?”

“Melissa told me about him in confidence. I had to respect her wishes.”

“Oh, Christ!” Ramp turned his back on me and began pacing the entry hall.

Chickering said, “Any particular reason for the girl to keep it confidential?”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“I did. She says she didn’t want to alarm her mother.”

“Then you’ve got your answer.”

Chickering said, “Uh-huh,” and shot me the kind of look vice-principals reserve for teenage psychopaths.

“She could have told me,” said Ramp, stopping his pacing. “If I’d known, I’d have looked out for her, for God’s sake.”

I said, “Is there evidence McCloskey was involved in the disappearance?”

“Christ,” said Ramp. “He’s here, she’s gone. What more do you need?”

“He’s been in town for six months.”

“This is the first time she’s been out on her own. He hung around and waited.”

I turned to Chickering. “From what I’ve seen, Chief, you keep a pretty tight lid on things. What’s the chance McCloskey could have been hanging around the neighborhood for six months- stalking her without being noticed?”

Chickering said, “Zero.” To Ramp: “Good point, Don. If he’s behind it, we’ll know it soon enough.”

Ramp said, “Why all the confidence, Cliff? You haven’t found him yet!”

Chickering frowned. “We’ve got his address, all the particulars. He’s being staked out. When he surfaces, he’ll be snapped up faster than a free turkey dinner on Skid Row.”

“What makes you think he’ll surface? What if he’s off somewhere, with-”

“Don,” said Chickering. “I understa-”

“Well, I don’t!” said Ramp. “How the hell is staking out his address going to do a damn thing when he’s probably long gone!”

Chickering said, “It’s the criminal mind. They tend to return to roost.”

Ramp gave a disgusted look and resumed pacing.

Chickering went a shade paler. Parboiled sweetbreads. “We’re interfacing with LAPD, Pasadena, Glendale, and the Sheriffs, Don. Got everyone’s computers on the job. The Rolls’ plates are on all their alert lists. There’s no car registered to him, but all the hot sheets are being scrutinized.”

“How many cars on the hot sheets? Ten thousand?”

“Everyone’s looking, Don. Taking it seriously. He can’t get far.”

Ramp ignored him, kept pacing.

Chickering turned to me. “This wasn’t a good secret to keep, Doctor.”

Ramp muttered, “That’s for damn sure.”

I said, “I understand how you feel, but I had no choice- Melissa’s a legal adult.”

Ramp said, “What you did was legal, huh? We’ll see about that.”

A voice from the top of the stairs said, “Just get off his case, Don!”

Melissa stood on the landing, dressed in a man’s shirt and jeans, her hair tied back carelessly. The shirt made her look undernourished. She came down the curving flight fast, swinging her arms like a jogger.

Ramp said, “Melissa-”

She stood before him, chin up, hands fisted. “Just leave him alone, Don. He didn’t do anything. I was the one who asked him to keep it secret, he had to listen, so just lay off.

Ramp drew himself up. “We’ve heard all tha-”

Melissa screamed, “Shut up dammit! I don’t want to hear this crap anymore!”

Ramp’s turn to go pale. His hands quavered.

Chickering said, “I think you’d best calm down, young lady.”

Melissa turned to him and shook her fist. “Don’t you dare tell me what to do. You should be out doing your job- getting your stupid rent-a-cops to find my mother instead of standing around with him, drinking our scotch.”

Chickering’s face tensed with rage, then settled into a sick smile.

“Melissa!” said Ramp.

“ “Melissa’!” She mimicked his outraged tone. “I don’t have time for this crap! My mother’s out there and we have to find her. So let’s stop looking for scapegoats and just figure out how to find her!”

“That’s exactly what we’re doing, young lady,” said Chickering.

“How? With neighborhood patrols? What’s the point? She’s not in San Labrador anymore. If she was, she would have been spotted long ago.”

A moment’s pause before Chickering answered. “We’re doing everything we can.”

It sounded hollow. He knew it. The look on both Ramp’s face and Melissa’s drove it home.

He buttoned his coat. Tight across the midriff. Turned to Ramp. “I’ll stay as long as you need me, but in your interests, I should be out on the streets.”

“Sure,” said Ramp dispiritedly.

“Chin up, Don. We’ll find her, don’t you worry.”

Ramp shrugged and walked away, disappearing into the innards of the mansion.

Chickering said, “Good to meet you, Doctor.” His index finger pointed like a revolver. To Melissa: “Young lady.”

He saw himself out. When the door closed, Melissa said, “Idiot. Everyone knows he’s an idiot- the kids all call him Prickering behind his back. There’s basically no crime in San Labrador, so no one challenges him. It’s not because of him, though- just that outsiders stick out like sore thumbs. And the police roust anyone who doesn’t look rich.”

Talking rapidly but fluently. Just a slight raise of pitch- a tinge of the panic I’d heard over the phone.

I said, “Your basic small-town setup.”

She said, “That’s what this place is. Hicksville. Nothing ever happens here.” She lowered her head and shook it. “Only now it has. It is my fault, Dr. Delaware. I should have told her about him!”

“Melissa, there’s no indication McCloskey has anything to do with this. Think of what you just said about the police rousting outsiders. The chance of anyone being able to stalk her without being spotted is nil.”

“Stalk.” She shivered, let out breath. “I hope you’re right. Then where is she? What happened to her?”

I chose my words carefully. “It’s possible, Melissa, that nothing happened to her. That she did this on her own.”

“You’re saying she ran away?”

“I’m saying she may have taken a drive and decided to prolong it.”

“No way!” She shook her head vehemently. “No way!”

“Melissa, when I talked to your mother I got the sense she was chafing at the bit- really yearning for some freedom.”

She kept shaking her head. Turned her back on me and faced the green staircase.

I said, “She talked to me about being ready to take giant steps. Of standing before an open door and having to walk through. She spoke of this house as stifling her. I got the distinct impression she wanted out and was even considering moving once you’d gone away.”

“No! She didn’t take anything with her- I checked her room. All the suitcases are there. I know everything in her closet and she didn’t take any of her clothes!”

“I’m not saying she planned a trip, Melissa. I’m talking about something spontaneous. Impulsive.”

“No.” Another sharp head shake. “She was careful. She wouldn’t do this to me.”

“You are her main concern. But maybe she got… intoxicated by her newfound freedom. She insisted on driving by herself today- wanted to feel in control. Maybe once she got out on the road, driving her favorite car, it felt so good she just kept going. That has nothing to do with her love for you. But sometimes when things start to change, they change fast.”

She bit her lip, fought back tears, and said in a very small voice, “You really think she’s okay?”

“I think you need to do everything possible to try to locate her. But I wouldn’t assume the worst.”

She took several breaths, punched her sides. Kneaded her hands. “Out on the road. And she just kept going. Wouldn’t that be something.” Wide-eyed. Fascinated by the possibility. Then fascination gave way to injury. “No, I just can’t see it- she wouldn’t do that to me.”

“She loves you dearly, Melissa, but she-”

“Yes, she does,” she said, crying. “Yes, she does love me. And I want her back!”

Footsteps sounded on the marble to our left. We turned toward it.

Ramp was standing there, blazer over one arm.

Melissa used her bare hands to dry her eyes hastily and ineffectually.

He said, “I’m sorry, Melissa. You were right- there’s no sense blaming anybody. Sorry if I offended you, too, Doctor.”

I said, “No offense taken.”

Melissa turned away from him.

He came over and shook my hand.

Melissa was tapping her foot, finger-combing her hair.

Ramp said, “Melissa, I know how you fee- The point is, we’re in this together. We’ve all got to hang together. To get her back.”

Melissa spoke without looking at him. “What do you want from me?”

He gave a concerned look. It seemed genuine. Paternal. She ignored it. He said, “I know Chickering’s a moron. I don’t have any more confidence in him than you do. So let’s put our heads together. See if we can come up with something, for God’s sake.”

He held out his hands. Frozen in supplication. Genuine pain on his face. Unless he was better than Olivier.

She said, “Whatever.” Sounding that bored had to be a strain.

He said, “Look, there’s no sense standing around out here. Let’s go in, stay near the phone. Can I get you something to drink, Doctor?”

“Coffee, if you’ve got it.”

“Sure bet.”

We followed him through the house, settled in the rear room with the French doors and painted beams. The gardens and rolling lawns and tennis court were bathed in emerald light. The pool was a lozenge of peacock blue. All but one of the doors to the car stable were closed.

Ramp picked up a phone on an end table, punched two digits, and said, “Pot of coffee in the rear study, please. Three cups.” Hanging up, he said, “Make yourself comfortable, Doctor.”

I settled in a sun-cracked club chair the color of a well-used saddle. Melissa perched on the arm of a cane-backed chair nearby. Scratched her lip. Tugged at her ponytail.

Ramp remained standing. Every hair in place, but his face showed the strain.

A moment later Madeleine came in with the coffee and set it down without comment. Ramp thanked her, dismissed her, and poured three cups. Black for me and himself, cream and sugar for Melissa. She accepted it but didn’t drink.

Ramp and I sipped.

No one spoke.

Ramp said, “Let me call Malibu again.” He picked up the phone and punched in a number. Held it to his ear for several moments before putting it back in its cradle. Treating the apparatus with special care, as if it held his fate.

I said, “What’s in Malibu?”

“Our… Gina’s beach house. Broad Beach. Not that she’d go there, but it’s the only thing I can think of.”

Melissa said, “That’s ridiculous. She hates the water.”

Ramp punched buttons again, waited several moments, and hung up.

We sipped some more.

Ate more silence.

Melissa put her cup down and said, “This is stupid.”

Before either Ramp or I could reply, the phone rang.

Melissa beat Ramp for it.

“Yes, but speak to me, first… Just do it, dammit- I’m the one who… What! Oh, no! What do you- that’s ridiculous. How can you be sure! That’s stupid… No, I’m perfectly capable of… No, you listen to me, you-”

She stood there, open-mouthed. Pulled the phone away from her face and stared at it.

“He hung up!”

“Who?” said Ramp.

Prickering! That ass hung up on me!”

“What did he have to say?”

Still gazing at the phone, she said, “McCloskey. They found him. Downtown L.A. The L.A. police questioned him and let him go!”

“Christ!” said Ramp. He snatched the phone out of her hand, punched buttons hurriedly. Twisting his shirt collar and grinding his teeth. “Cliff? This is Don Ramp. Melissa said you… I understand that, Cliff… I know she is. It’s a frightening thing, but that’s no… All right. I know you are… Yes, yes…” Frowning and shaking his head. “Just tell me what happened… Uh-huh… Uh huh… But how can you be sure, Cliff? This isn’t some goddam saint we’re talking about, Cliff… Uh-huh… Yes… Yes, but… Still, wasn’t there some way… Okay. But what if… Okay, I will. Thanks for calling, Cliff. Stay in touch.”

Hanging up, he said, “He apologizes for hanging up on you. Says he told you he was busy, trying to find your mom, and you continued to… lip off to him. He wants you to know he has your mother’s best interests at heart.”

Melissa stood there, glassy-eyed. “They had him and they let him go.”

Ramp put his arm over her shoulder and she didn’t resist. She looked numb. Betrayed. I’d seen more life in wax models.

“Apparently,” said Ramp, “he can account for his whereabouts every minute of the day- they have no grounds to hold him. They had to release him, Meliss. Legally.”

“The asses,” she said in a low voice. “The goddam asses! What does it matter where he was all day? He doesn’t do things himself- he hires people to do things.” Raising her voice to a shout: “He hires people! So what if he wasn’t there himself!”

Wrenching herself away from Ramp, she grabbed her face and let out a squeal of frustration. Ramp started to approach her, thought better of it, and looked at me.

I went over to her. She retreated to a corner of the room and faced the wall. Stood in the corner like a child being punished, sobbing.

Ramp gave a sad look.

Both of us knowing she could have used a father. Neither of us able to fill the bill.

***

Finally she stopped crying. But she stayed in the corner.

I said, “Neither of you has confidence in Chickering. Maybe a private investigator’s called for.”

Melissa said, “Your friend!”

Ramp looked at her with sudden curiosity.

She looked at me and said, “Tell him.”

I said, “Yesterday, Melissa and I discussed investigating McCloskey. A friend of mine’s an LAPD detective on leave. Very competent, lots of experience. He agreed to do it. He’d probably agree to look into your wife’s disappearance as well. If she shows up soon, you might still want to consider checking out McCloskey. Of course, your attorneys may have someone else they work with-”

“No,” said Melissa, “I want your friend. Period.”

Ramp looked at her, then me. “I don’t know who they use- the lawyers. We never had to deal with anything like this. Is this friend of yours really good?”

Melissa said, “He already said he was. I want him, and I’m paying.”

“That won’t be necessary, Melissa. I’ll pay.”

“No, I will. She’s my mother and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Ramp sighed. “We’ll talk about it later. In the meantime, Dr. Delaware, if you’d be kind enough to call your friend-”

The phone rang again. Both of them jerked their heads around.

This time Ramp got there first. “Yes? Oh, hello, Doctor… No, I’m sorry. She hasn’t… Yes, I understand…”

Melissa said, “Her. If she’d called sooner, we could have started looking sooner.”

Ramp covered his ear. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I couldn’t hear… Oh. That’s very kind of you. But no, I don’t see any pressing reason for you to… Hold on.”

Covering the mouthpiece with his other hand, he looked at me. “Dr. Cunningham-Gabney wants to know if she should come over. Any reason she should?”

“Does she have any… clinical information about Mrs. Ramp that would help locate her?”

“Here,” he said, handing me the phone.

I took it, said, “Dr. Cunningham-Gabney, this is Alex Delaware.”

“Dr. Delaware.” The well-modulated voice stripped of some of its melody. “I’m very alarmed by today’s events. Did Melissa and her mother have any sort of confrontation before she disappeared?”

“Why do you ask that?”

“Gina called me this morning and intimated there had been some unpleasantness- Melissa staying out all night with some boy?”

Keeping my eyes off Melissa, I said, “That’s accurate, as far as it goes, Doctor, but I doubt it’s a causal factor.”

“Do you? Any unusual stress could cause someone like Gina Ramp to behave unpredictably.”

Melissa was staring straight at me.

I said, “Why don’t you and I get together? Discuss any clinically relevant factors that might shed light on what’s happened.”

Pause. “She’s right there, isn’t she? Hovering?”

“Basically.”

“All right. I don’t imagine my coming down there and provoking another confrontation is very wise. Would you like to come over to my office, right now?”

“Sounds good,” I said, “if Melissa thinks that’s okay.”

“That child has too much power as is,” she said sharply.

“Maybe so, but clinically I think it’s advisable.”

“Very well. Consult her.”

I covered the receiver and said to Melissa: “What do you think of my getting together with her? At the clinic. To share facts- psychological data- in order to see if we can figure out where your mother is.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” said Ramp.

“Sure,” Melissa said sourly. “Whatever.” Waving her fingers. The same offhandedness she’d used two days ago to drop clinical bombs.

I said, “I’ll stay here as long as you want me to.”

“No, no. You can go right now. I’ll be fine. Go talk to her.”

I got back on the phone. “I’ll be there within the half hour, Dr. Cunningham-Gabney.”

“Ursula. Please. At times like this a hyphen’s a damned nuisance. Do you know how to get here?”

“Melissa will tell me.”

“I’m sure she will.”

***

Before I left, I called Milo’s home and got Rick’s voice on a machine. Both Melissa and Ramp sagged when I told them he wasn’t in, making me realize how much stake they were putting in his powers of detection. Wondering if I was doing him a favor by drawing him into the haut monde, I left a message for him to call me at the Gabney clinic during the next couple of hours; at my home, after that.

As I got ready to leave, the doorbell chimed. Melissa jumped up and ran out of the room. Ramp followed her, walking with long, tennis-bred strides.

I brought up the rear, to the entry hall. Melissa opened the doors and let in a black-haired boy of around twenty. He took a step toward Melissa, looked as if he wanted to hug her. Saw Ramp and stopped himself.

He was on the small side- five seven, slim build, olive skin, full bowed lips, brooding brown eyes under heavy brows. His hair was black and curly, worn short on top and sides, longer in back. He had on a short red busboy’s jacket, black slacks, white shirt, and black bow tie. A set of car keys jangled in one hand. He looked around nervously. “Anything?”

Melissa said, “Nothing.”

He moved closer to her.

Ramp said, “Hello, Noel.”

The boy looked up. “Everything’s okay, Mr. Ramp. Jorge’s handling the cars. There aren’t that many tonight. It’s kind of slow.”

Melissa touched the boy’s sleeve and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Ramp said, “Where are you going?”

Melissa said, “Out. To look for her.”

Ramp said, “Do you really think-”

“Yes, I do. C’mon, Noel.” Tugging at the red fabric.

The boy looked at Ramp.

Ramp turned to me. I played sphinx. Ramp said, “Okay, Noel, consider yourself off for the rest of the night. But be careful-”

Before he finished the sentence the two of them were out the door. It slammed shut and echoed.

Ramp stared at it for a few moments, then turned to me, weary. “Would you care for a drink, Doctor?”

“No, thanks. I’m expected at the Gabney Clinic.”

“Yes, of course.”

He walked me to the door. “Have kids of your own, Doctor?”

“No.”

That seemed to disappoint him.

I said, “It can be tough.”

He said, “She’s really bright- sometimes I think that makes it rougher, for all of us, her included. Gina told me you treated her years ago, when she was just a little kid.”

“Seven through nine.”

“Seven through nine,” he said. “Two years. So you’ve spent more time with her than I have. Probably know her a hell of a lot better than I do.”

“It was a long time ago,” I said. “I saw a different side of her.”

He smoothed his mustache and played with his collar. “She’s never accepted me- probably never will. Right?”

“Things can change,” I said.

“Can they?”

He opened the door on Disney lights and cool breeze. I realized I hadn’t gotten directions to the clinic from Melissa and told him so.

He said, “No problem. I know the way by heart. Gone there plenty. When Gina needed me to.”

14

On the way to Pasadena I found myself peering up driveways, checking foliage, scanning the streets for a misplaced shadow, a flash of chrome. The crumpled outline of a woman down.

Irrational. Because the pros had been there already: I spotted three San Labrador police cruisers within a ten-block radius, one of which tailed me for half a block before resuming its prowl.

Irrational because the streets were naked- a stray tricycle could be spotted a block away.

A neighborhood that kept its secrets off the street.

Where had Gina Ramp taken hers?

Or had they been taken from her?

Despite my words of encouragement to Melissa, I hadn’t convinced myself the whole thing was an impromptu vacation from phobia.

From what I’d seen, Gina had been vulnerable. Fragile. Just arguing with her daughter had set off an attack.

How could she possibly handle the real world- whatever that meant.

So I kept searching as I drove. Spitting in the face of reason and feeling a little better for it.

***

The Gabney Clinic occupied a generous corner lot in a good residential neighborhood that had begun yielding reluctantly to apartments and shops. The building had once been a house. A big two-storied, shingle-sided, brown craftsman-style bungalow set back behind a flat, wide lawn. Three giant pines shadowed the grass. A front porch spanned the width of the structure, darkened by massive eaves. Shake roof, lots of wood-relief, stingy windows in oversized casements. Ungainly and dimly lit- some architectural hack’s sendup of Greene and Greene. No sign advertising what went on inside.

A low wall- rock chips in cement- fronted the property. A gateless gap in the center provided access to a cement walkway. On the left, a wood-plank gate had been propped open, exposing a long, narrow driveway. A white Saab Turbo 9000 was parked at the mouth of the drive, blocking further motor access. I left the Seville parked on the street- Pasadena was more tolerant than San Labrador- and made my way up the walk.

A white porcelain sign the size and shape of an hour cigar was nailed to the front door; GABNEY was painted on it in black block letters. The knocker was a snarling lion chewing on a brass ring, top-lit by a yellow bug bulb. I lifted it and let it fall. The door vibrated- C-sharp, I was pretty sure.

A second porch light went on. A moment later the door opened. Ursula Cunningham-Gabney stood in the doorway wearing a burgundy-colored scallop-necked knit dress that ended two inches above her knees and accentuated her height. Vertical ribs ran through the fabric, accentuating further. High-heeled pumps were the topper.

The perm she’d worn in the newspaper photo had been replaced by a glossy fudge-colored wedge. John Lennon eyeglasses hung from a chain around her neck, competing for chest-space with a string of pearls. The chest itself was convex and concave exactly where it should have been. Her waist was small, her legs sleek and very, very long. Her face was squarish, finely molded, much prettier than in the picture. Younger, too. She didn’t appear to be much older than thirty. Smooth neck, tight jawline, big hazel eyes, clean features that didn’t need camouflage. But she was wearing plenty: pale foundation, artfully applied blush, mauve eye shadow, deep-red lipstick. Aiming for severe and hitting the target.

“Dr. Delaware? Come in.”

“Alex,” I said. “Fair is fair.”

That confused her for a moment; then she said, “Yes, of course. Alex.” And smiled. And turned it off.

She motioned me into what would have seemed like a generous entry hall if I hadn’t just done time at Dickinson Manor. Parquet floors, architecturally paneled oak walls stained shoe-polish brown, plain-wrap craftsman benches and coat trees, a clock that said SANTA FE below the 12 and RAILROAD above the 6. On the walls was a scattering of muddy California plein-air landscapes- the kind of stuff the galleries in Carmel had been trying to palm off as masterpieces for years.

The living room was to the left, visible through half-open sliding wooden doors. More oak walls, more landscapes- Yosemite, Death Valley, the Monterey coast. Black-upholstered straight-backed chairs arranged in a circle. Heavy drapes hid the windows. What would have been the dining room was to the right, set up as a waiting area with mismatched couches and magazine tables.

She stayed a couple of steps in front of me, heading for the rear of the first floor. Quick, deliberate steps. Tight dress. Fluid glutei. No chitchat.

She stopped, opened a door, and held it.

I stepped into what had probably been a maid’s room. Small and dim and gray-walled, with a low ceiling. Furnished with simple contemporary pieces: a low-backed pine and gray-leather stenographer’s chair behind a pine table-desk. Two side chairs. Three bracketed shelves full of textbooks on the wall behind the desk. Diplomas filling the wall to the left. A single window on a side wall was covered by a gray pleated shade.

A single piece of art, next to the shelves. Cassatt drypoint etching. Soft color. Mother and child.

Yesterday I’d seen another piece by the same artist. Another simple gray room.

Therapeutic rapport taken to the nth?

Chicken-egg riddles jumped into my head.

Ursula Cunningham-Gabney went behind the desk, sat, and crossed her legs. The dress rode up. She left it that way. Put on her glasses and stared at me.

She said, “No sign of her yet?”

I shook my head.

She frowned, pushed the glasses higher on her thin, straight nose. “You’re younger than I expected.”

“Ditto. And you squeezed in two doctorates.”

“It really wasn’t that remarkable,” she said. “I skipped two grades in elementary school, started Tufts at fifteen, went to Harvard for grad school at nineteen. Leo Gabney was my major professor and he guided me through- helped me avoid some of the nonsense that can trip a person up. I did a double major in clinical and psychobiology- had taken all the premed courses as an undergrad. So Leo suggested I go to med school. I did my dissertation research during the first two years, combined my psych internship with my psychiatric residency, and ended up with licensure in both fields.”

“Sounds pretty hectic.”

“It was wonderful,” she said, without a trace of smile. “Those were wonderful years.”

She removed her glasses, set her hands flat on the desk.

“So,” she said. “What are we to make of Mrs. Ramp’s disappearance?”

“I thought you could cue me in.”

“I’d like to take advantage of the fact that you saw her more recently than I did.”

“I thought you saw her every day.”

She shook her head. “Not for some time. We’ve cut our individual sessions to two to four times a week, depending upon her needs. The last time I saw her was Tuesday- the day you called. She was doing quite well. That’s why I felt it was acceptable for you to speak with her. What happened with Melissa that upset her so?”

“She was trying to let Melissa know she was fine, that it was perfectly okay for her to go away to Harvard. Melissa got angry, ran out of the room, and her mother had an anxiety attack. But she handled it- inhaled a drug she described as a muscle relaxant and worked on her breathing until she’d recovered.”

She nodded. “Tranquizone. It shows great promise. My husband and I are among the first to use it clinically. The major advantage is that it’s very focused- works directly on the sympathetic nervous system and doesn’t appear to impact the thalamus or the limbic system. In fact, so far no one’s found any CNS impact at all. Which means the addictive potential is lower- none of the problems you get with Valium or Xanax. And respiratory administration means you get improved breathing quickly, which generalizes to the entire anxiety syndrome. The only drawback is that the effects are very short-lived.”

“It worked for her. She calmed down pretty quickly, felt good about handling the attack.”

“That’s what we work on,” she said. “Self-esteem. Using the drug as a springboard for cognitive restructuring. We give them a success experience, then train them to see themselves in a power role- see the attack as a challenge, not a tragedy. To zero in on small victories and build from there.”

“It was definitely a victory for her. After she calmed down, she realized the issue with Melissa was still unresolved. That upset her, but the anxiety didn’t recur.”

“How did she react to being upset?”

“She went looking for Melissa.”

“Good, good,” she said. “Action-orientation.”

“Unfortunately, Melissa was gone- had left the house with a friend of hers. I sat with Mrs. Ramp for about half an hour, waiting for her to come back. That’s the last I saw of her.”

“What was Mrs. Ramp’s demeanor while you waited?”

“Subdued. Worried about how she’d work things out with Melissa. But no panic- actually, she seemed quite calm.”

“When did Melissa finally show up?”

I realized I didn’t know and said so.

“Well,” she said, “the whole thing must have affected Gina more than she let on. Even to me. She called me this morning and said there’d been a confrontation. Sounded tense but insisted she was all right. The ability to perceive herself as masterful is so essential to the treatment that I didn’t argue with her. But I knew we had to talk. I offered her the choice of an individual session or discussing it in group. She said she’d try group- the next one was today- and if that didn’t resolve things for her, maybe she would stay late and talk one-on-one. That’s why I was especially surprised when she didn’t show up- I’d expected it to be an important session for her. When the group took its midsession break at four, I called her at home, spoke to her husband, and found out she’d left for group at two-thirty. I didn’t want to alarm him but I did suggest he call the police. Before the sentence was out of my mouth, I heard screaming in the background.”

She paused, pressed forward so that her breasts rested atop the desk. “Apparently Melissa had come into the room- hovering- asked her stepfather what was going on,found out, and gone hysterical.”

Another pause. The breasts remained there, like an offering.

I said, “You don’t seem to like Melissa very much.”

She lifted her shoulders, moved back against the chair. “That’s hardly the issue, is it?”

“Guess not.”

Tugging, now, at her hemline. Pulling harder when it didn’t yield.

“All right,” she said. “You’re her advocate. I know child people get into that kind of thing all the time- perhaps sometimes it’s necessary. But that’s totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. We’ve got a crisis situation here. A severely phobic woman- one of the most impaired patients I’ve ever treated, and I’ve treated lots. We’ve got her out on her own, dealing with stimuli she’s totally unprepared for, having broken her treatment regimen- taken steps she wasn’t ready for, due to pressure exerted by her relationship with an extremely neurotic teenage girl. And that’s where my advocacy comes in. I have to think about my patient. Surely you can see that the relationship between the two of them is pathological.”

Blinking hard several times. Real color deepening the rouge on her cheeks.

I said, “Maybe. But Melissa didn’t invent the relationship. She was made, not born, so why blame the victim?”

“I assure you-”

“I also don’t see why you feel the need to pin the disappearance on mother-daughter conflict. Gina Ramp never let Melissa get in the way of her pathology before.”

She wheeled her chair back several inches, never breaking eye contact. “Now who’s blaming the victim?”

“All right,” I said. “This isn’t productive.”

“No, it isn’t. Have you any other information for me?”

“I assume you’re familiar with the circumstances leading up to her phobia- the acid attack?”

Barely moving her lips, she said, “You assume correctly.”

“The man who did it- Joel McCloskey- is back in town.”

Her mouth formed an O. No sound came out. She uncrossed her legs, pressed her knees together.

“Oh, shit,” she said. “When did this happen?”

“Six months ago, but he hasn’t called or harassed the family. There’s no evidence he has anything to do with this. The police questioned him and he had an alibi, so they released him. And if he wanted to cause trouble, he’s had plenty of time- been out of prison for six years. Never contacted her or anyone else in the family.”

“Six years!”

“Six years since his release from prison. He spent most of it out of state.”

“She never said a thing.”

“She didn’t know.”

“Then how do you know?”

“Melissa found out recently and told me.”

Her nostrils widened. “And she didn’t tell her mother?”

“She didn’t want to alarm her. Planned to hire a private investigator to check McCloskey out.”

“Brilliant. Just brilliant.” Shaking her head. “In light of what’s happened, do you concur with that judgment?”

“At the time it seemed reasonable not to traumatize Mrs. Ramp. If the detective learned McCloskey was a threat, it would have been communicated.”

“How did Melissa find out McCloskey was back?”

I repeated what I’d been told.

She said, “Unbelievable. Well, the child has initiative, I’ll grant her that. But her meddling is-”

“It was a judgment call and it’s still far from clear that it was wrong. Can you say for sure you would have told Mrs. Ramp?”

“It would have been nice to have had the choice.”

She looked more hurt than angry.

Part of me wanted to apologize. The other wanted to lecture her about proper communication with the patient’s family.

She said, “All this time I’ve been working on showing her the world’s a safe place, and he’s been out there.”

I said, “Look, there really is no reason to believe anything ominous has happened. She could have had car trouble. Or just decided to stretch her wings a bit- the fact that she chose to drive over here by herself may indicate she was yearning to stretch.”

“This man’s being back doesn’t bother you at all? The possibility that he might have been stalking her for six months?”

“You were at that house frequently. When you walked around the block with her did you ever notice him- or anyone else?”

“No, but I wouldn’t have. I was focusing on her.”

“Even so,” I said. “San Labrador’s the last place you could stalk anybody and get away with it. No people, no cars- making intruders conspicuous is exactly why they do it. And the police function as private guards. Keeping an eye out for strangers is their specialty.”

“Granted,” she said. “But what if he didn’t sit around and make himself obvious? What if he just drove around- not every day, just once in a while? Different times of day. Hoping to grab a glimpse of her? And today he succeeded- spotted her leaving the house alone and went after her. Or maybe it wasn’t him at all- he hired someone to hurt her once, could have done it again. So the fact that he has an alibi is meaningless as far as I’m concerned. What about the man who actually attacked her- the one McCloskey paid? Maybe he’s back in town, too.”

“Melvin Findlay,” I said. “Not the man I’d choose for the job.”

“What do you mean?”

“A black man driving around San Labrador without a good reason wouldn’t last two minutes. And Findlay served hard time in prison for being hired help. It’s hard to believe he’d be stupid enough to go after her again.”

“Maybe,” she said. “I hope you’re right. But I’ve studied the criminal mind, and I long ago gave up assuming anything about human intelligence.”

“Speaking of the criminal mind, did Mrs. Ramp ever say what McCloskey had against her?”

She took off her glasses, drummed her fingers, picked a piece of lint from the desk, and flicked it away. “No, she didn’t. Because she didn’t know. Had no idea why he hated her so much. There’d once been a romance, but they’d parted as friends. She was truly baffled. It made it even more difficult for her- not knowing, not understanding. I spent a long time working on that.”

She drummed some more. “This is totally uncharacteristic of her. She was always a good patient, never deviated from plan. Even if it is nothing more than car trouble, I have an image of her stranded somewhere, panicking and going out of control.”

“Does she carry medication with her?”

“She should- her instructions are to have her Tranquizone with her at all times.”

“From what I saw, she knows how to use it.”

She stared at me, gave a close-lipped smile that tightened her jawline. “You’re quite the optimist, Dr. Delaware.”

I smiled back. “Gets me through the night.”

Her face softened. For a moment I thought she might actually show me some teeth. Then she grimaced and said, “Excuse me. I’m feeling a real lack of closure- have to deal with it.”

She reached for the phone, punched 911. When the operator came on the line, she identified herself as Gina Ramp’s doctor and asked to be put through to the chief of police.

As she waited I said, “His name is Chickering.”

She nodded, held up an index finger, and said, “Chief Chickering? This is Dr. Ursula Cunningham-Gabney, Gina Ramp’s physician… No, I haven’t… Nothing… Yes, of course… Yes, she did. Three o’clock this afternoon… No, she didn’t, and I haven’t… No, there’s nothing… No, not in the least.” Look of exasperation. “Chief Chickering, I assure you she was in full possession of her faculties. Absolutely… No, not at all… I don’t feel that would be prudent or necessary… No, I assure you, she was totally rational… Yes. Yes, I understand… Excuse me, sir, there is one thing I thought you might want to consider. The man who attacked her… No, not him. The one who actually threw the acid. Findlay. Melvin Findlay- has he been located?… Oh. Oh, I see… Yes, of course. Thank you, Chief.”

She hung up and shook her head. “Findlay’s dead. Died in prison several years ago. Chickering was offended that I even asked- seems to think I’m casting aspersions on his professional abilities.”

“It sounded as if he’s questioning Gina’s mental stability.”

She gave a look of distaste. “He wanted to know if she was “all there’- how’s that for a choice of words?” Rolling her eyes. “I actually think he wanted me to tell him she was crazy. As if that would make it acceptable for her to be missing.”

“Make it acceptable if he didn’t find her,” I said. “Who can be responsible for the actions of a crazy person?”

She blinked several more times. Gazed down at the desk top and let all the severity drop from her face. I was willing to bet her beauty had bloomed late. For a moment I saw her as a myopic little girl. Growing up smarter than her peers. Unable to relate. Sitting up in her room, reading and wondering if she’d ever fit in anywhere.

“We’re responsible,” she said. “We’ve taken on the responsibility to care for them. And here we sit, ineffectual.”

Frustration on her face. My eyes drifted to the Cassatt print.

She noticed and appeared to grow even more tense. “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Cassatt was a genius. The expressiveness, particularly the way she brought out the essence of children.”

“I’ve heard she didn’t like children.”

“Oh, really?”

“Have you had the print for a long time?”

“A while.” She touched her hair. Another locked-jaw smile. “You didn’t come here to discuss art. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Can you think of any other psychological factors that might explain Gina’s disappearance?”

“Such as?”

“Dissociative episodes- amnesia, fugue. Could she have had some sort of break, be out there wandering, unaware of who she is?”

She thought for a while. “There’s nothing like that in her history. Her ego was intact- remarkably so, considering everything she’s been through. In fact I always thought of her as one of my most rational agoraphobics. In terms of the origin of her symptoms. With some of them, you never know how it starts- there’s no trauma you can put your finger on. But in her case the symptoms manifested following a tremendous amount of physical and emotional stress. Multiple surgeries, prolonged stretches of time when she was ordered to remain in bed so that her face could heal- medically prescribed agoraphobia, if you will. Combine that with the fact that the assault took place when she stepped out of her home and it would be almost irrational for her not to behave the way she did. Maybe even in a biological sense- data are coming out showing actual structural change in the midbrain following trauma.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “I suppose even after she turns up, we may never know what happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“The life she leads- the insularity. In her own way she’s quite self-sufficient. That can lead a person to treasure secrecy. Even luxuriate in it. Back when I treated Melissa, I remember thinking that for this family, secrets were the coin of the realm. That an outsider would never really know what was going on. Gina may have stockpiled plenty of coins.”

“That’s the goal of therapy,” she said. “To break into that stockpile. Her progress has been remarkable.”

“I’m sure it has. All I’m saying is that she still may decide to hold on to a private reserve.”

Her face tightened as she prepared to defend against that. But she waited until she’d calmed before speaking. “I suppose you’re right. We all hold on to something, don’t we? The private gardens we choose to water and feed.” Turning away from me. “ “Gardens brimming with iron flowers. Iron roots and stems and petals.’ A paranoid schizophrenic once told me that, and I do believe it’s an apt image. Not even the deepest probing can uproot iron flowers when they don’t want to be dug up, can it?”

She faced me again. Looking hurt once more.

“No, it can’t,” I said. “Still, if she does choose to dig them up, you’ll probably be the one she hands the bouquet.”

Weak smile. Teeth. White and straight and gleaming. “Are you patronizing me, Dr. Delaware?”

“No, and if it sounds that way, I’m sorry, Dr. Cunningham hyphen Gabney.”

That pumped some strength into the smile.

I said, “What about the members of her group? Would they know anything useful?”

“No. She never saw any of them socially.”

“How many are there?”

“Just two.”

“Small group.”

“It’s a rare disorder. Finding motivated patients and those with the financial means to embark on the extensive treatment we offer cuts the number even further.”

“How are the other two patients doing?”

“Well enough to leave home and come to group.”

“Well enough to be interviewed?”

“By whom?”

“The police. The private detective- he’ll be looking for her in addition to investigating McCloskey.”

“Absolutely not. These are fragile individuals. They’re not even aware she’s missing, yet.”

“They know she didn’t show up today.”

“No-shows aren’t unusual, given the diagnosis. Most of them have missed sessions at one time or another.”

“Has Mrs. Ramp missed any before today?”

“No, but that’s not the point. No one’s absence would be especially noteworthy.”

“Will they be curious if she doesn’t show up by next Monday?”

“If they are, I’ll deal with it. Now if you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to discuss the other patients. They haven’t lost their right to confidentiality.”

“Okay.”

She started to cross her legs again. Thought better of it and kept her feet flat on the floor.

“Well,” she said, “this hasn’t been very profitable, has it?”

She stood, smoothed her dress, looked past me toward the door.

I said, “Would there be any reason for her to walk out- voluntarily?”

She snapped her head around. “What do you mean?”

“The great escape,” I said. “Trading in her life-style for something new. Jumping the therapeutic gun and going for total independence.”

“Total independence?” she said. “That makes no sense at all. Not a lick.”

***

The door swung open before she was able to get me to it. A man charged in and race-walked across the entry hall. Leo Gabney. But even though I’d seen his photo just a few days ago, I had to look twice before his identity registered.

He noticed us mid-stride, stopped so suddenly I expected to see skid marks on the parquet.

It was his get-up that had thrown me off: red-and-white flannel western shirt, pipestem blue jeans, pointy-toed bullhide boots with riding heels. His belt was tooled cowhide, the buckle a big brass letter psi- the Greek alphabet’s contribution to psychology’s professional identity. A retractable key ring was attached to the belt.

Urban Cowboy, but he lacked the brawn to make it work. Despite his age, his build was almost boyish. Five nine, 130, sunken thorax, shoulders narrower than his wife’s. The bushy hair stark white over a face sun-baked the color of sour-mash whiskey. Active blue eyes. Bristly white brows. Liver-spotted cranial dome high enough to host half a dozen worry lines; prominent, high-bridged nose with pinched nostrils; less chin than he deserved. His neck was wattled. A bramble of white chest hair ended at his gullet. The entire assemblage elfin but not whimsical.

He gave his wife a peck on the cheek, gave me a laboratory look.

She said, “This is Dr. Delaware.”

“Ah, Dr. Delaware. I’m Dr. Gabney.”

Strong voice. Basso profundo- too deep a tone for such a narrow box. A New England accent that turned my name into Dullaweah.

He extended his hand. Thin and soft- he hadn’t been roping steers. Even the bones felt soft, as if they’d been soaked in vinegar. The skin around them was loose and dry and cool, like that of a lizard in the shade.

“Has she shown up yet?” he said.

She said, “I’m afraid not, Leo.”

He clucked his tongue. “Hellish thing. I came down just as soon as I could.”

She said, “Dr. Delaware informed me that McCloskey- the man who assaulted her- is back in town.”

The white eyebrows tented and the worry lines became inverted V’s. “Oh?”

“The police located him but he had an alibi, so they let him go. We were discussing the fact that his previous modus was to hire someone- there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t do it again. The man he hired the first time is dead, but that doesn’t rule out another scoundrel, does it?”

“No, of course not. Dreadful. Letting him go was absurd- absolutely premature. Why don’t you call the police and remind them of that fact, dear?”

“I doubt they’d pay much attention. Dr. Delaware also feels it’s unlikely anyone could have watched her without being noticed by the San Labrador police.”

He said, “Why’s that?”

“The bare streets, the fact that the local police’s area of competence is looking out for strangers.”

“Competence is a relative term, Ursula. Call them. Tactfully remind them that McCloskey’s behavioral style is contractor, not contractee. And that he may have contracted again. Sociopaths often repeat themselves- behaviorally rigid. Cut out by a cookie cutter, the lot of them.”

“Leo, I don’t-”

“Please, darling.” He took both of her hands in his. Massaged her smooth flesh with his thumbs. “We’re dealing with inferior minds, and Mrs. Ramp’s welfare is at stake.”

She opened her mouth, closed it, said, “Certainly, Leo.”

“Thank you, darling. And one more thing, if you’d be so kind- pull the Saab in a bit. I’m sticking out into the street.”

She turned her back on us and walked quickly to her office. Gabney watched her. Following her sway- almost lasciviously. When she closed the door, he turned to me for the first time since we’d shaken hands. “Dr. Delaware, of pavor nocturnus fame. Come into my office, won’t you?”

I followed him to the rear of the house, into a wide, paneled room that would have been the library. Drapes of cranberry-colored velvet under gold-edged valances covered most of one wall. The rest was bookcases carved with near-rococo abandon and murky paintings of horses and dogs. The ceiling was as low as the one in his wife’s study, but adorned with moldings and centered with a plaster floral medallion from which hung a brass chandelier set with electric candles.

A seven-foot carved desk sat in front of one of the bookcases. A silver and crystal pen-and-inkwell set, bone-bladed letter opener, antique fold-up blotter, and green-shaded banker’s lamp shared the red leather top with an In/Out box and piles of medical and psychological journals, some still in their brown paper wrappers. The case directly behind him was filled with books with his name on the spine and letter-files tagged PEER REVIEW ARTICLES and dated from 1951 through the last year.

He settled himself in a high-backed leather desk chair and invited me to sit.

Second time, in just a few minutes, on the other side of the desk. I was starting to feel like a patient.

Using the bone-knife to slit the wrapper on a copy of The Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, he opened to the table of contents, scanned, and put the magazine down. Picking up another journal, he flipped pages, frowning.

“My wife’s an amazing woman,” he said, reaching for a third journal. “One of the finest minds of her generation. M.D. and Ph.D. by the age of twenty-five. You’ll never find a more skillful clinician, or one more dedicated.”

Wondering if he was trying to make up for the way he’d just treated her, I said, “Impressive.”

“Extraordinary.” He put the third journal aside. Smiled. “After that, what else could I do but marry her?”

Before I’d figured out how to react to that, he said, “We like to joke that she’s a paradox.” Chuckling. Stopping abruptly, he unsnapped one shirt pocket and pulled out a packet of chewing gum.

“Spearmint?” he said.

“No, thanks.”

He unwrapped a stick and got to work on it, weak chin rising and falling with oil-pump regularity. “Poor Mrs. Ramp. At this stage of her treatment she’s not equipped to be out there. My wife called me the moment she realized something was wrong- we keep a ranch up in Santa Ynez. Unfortunately, I had little to offer by way of wisdom- who could expect such a thing? What on earth could have happened?”

“Good question.”

He shook his head. “Very distressing. I did want to be down here in case something developed. Abandoned my duties and zipped down.”

His clothes looked pressed and clean. I wondered what his duties were. Remembering his soft hands, I said, “Do you ride?”

“A bit,” he said, chewing. “Though I don’t have a passion for it. I’d never have bought the beasts in the first place, but they came with the property. It was the space I wanted. The place I settled on included twenty acres. I’ve been thinking about planting Chardonnay grapes.” His mouth was still for a moment. I could see the gum wadded up inside one cheek, like a plug of tobacco. “Do you think a behaviorist is capable of producing a first-rate wine?”

“They say great wine is the result of intangibles.”

He smiled. “No such thing,” he said. “Only incomplete data.”

“Maybe so. Good luck.”

He sat back and rested his hands on his belly. The shirt billowed around them.

“The air,” he said between chews, “is what really draws me up there. Unfortunately my wife can’t enjoy it. Allergies. Horses, grasses, tree-pollens, all sorts of things that never bothered her back in Boston. So she concentrates on clinical work and leaves me free to experiment.”

It wasn’t the conversation I’d have imagined having with the great Leo Gabney. Back in the days when I used to imagine things like that. I wasn’t sure why he’d invited me in.

Perhaps sensing that, he said, “Alex Delaware. I’ve followed all your work, not just the sleep studies. “Multimodal Treatment of Self Damaging Obsessions in Children.’ “The Psychosocial Aspects of Chronic Disease and Prolonged Hospitalization in Children.’ “Disease-Related Communication and Family Coping Style.’ Et cetera. A solid output, clean writing.”

“Thank you.”

“You haven’t published in several years.”

“I’m working on something currently. For the most part I’ve been doing other things.”

“Private practice?”

“Forensic work.”

“What kind of forensic work?”

“Trauma and injury-related cases. Some child custody.”

“Ugly stuff, custody,” he said. “What’s your opinion about joint custody?”

“It can work in some situations.”

He smiled. “Nice hedge. I suppose that’s adaptive when dealing with the legal system. Actually, parents should be strongly reinforced for making it work. If they fail repeatedly, the parent with the best child-rearing skills should be selected as primary custodian, regardless of gender. Don’t you agree?”

“I think the best interests of the child are what counts.”

“Everyone thinks that, Doctor. The challenge is how to operationalize good intentions. If I had my way, no decisions about custody would be made until trained observers actually lived with the family for several weeks, keeping careful records using structured, valid, and reliable behavioral scales and reporting their results to a panel of psychological specialists. What do you think of that notion?”

“Sounds good, theoretically. In practical terms-”

“No, no,” he said, chewing furiously. “I speak from practical experience. My first wife set out to murder me legally- this was years ago, when the courts wouldn’t even hear what a father had to say. She was a drinker and a smoker and irresponsible to the core. But to the idiot judge that heard the case, the crucial factor was that she had ovaries. He gave her everything- my house, my son, sixty percent of the paltry estate I’d accumulated as an untenured lecturer. A year later, she was smoking in bed, dead-drunk. The house burned down and I lost my son forever.”

Saying it matter-of-factly, the bass voice flat as a foghorn.

Resting his elbows on the desk, he placed the fingertips of both hands together, creating a diamond-shaped space that he peered through.

I said, “I’m sorry.”

“It was a terrible time for me.” Chewing slowly. “For a while it seemed as if nothing would ever have reinforcement value again. But I ended up with Ursula, so I suppose there’s a silver lining.”

Heat in the blue eyes. Unmistakable passion.

I thought of the way she’d obeyed him. The way he’d looked at her rear. Wondered if what turned him on was her ability to be both wife and child.

He lowered his hands. “Soon after the tragedy I married again. Before Ursula. Another error in judgment, but at least there were no children. When I met Ursula, she was an undergraduate applying for graduate school and I was a full professor at the university and the medical school as well as the first non-M.D. associate dean the medical school had ever appointed. I saw her potential, set out to help her realize it. Most satisfying accomplishment of my life. Are you married?”

“No.”

“A wonderful convention if the proper confluence can be achieved. My first two were failures because I allowed myself to be swayed by intangibles. Ignored my training. Don’t segregate your scholarship from your life, my young friend. Your knowledge of human behavior gives you great advantage over common, bumbling homo incompetens.

He smiled again. “Enough lecturing. What’s your take on this whole thing- poor Mrs. Ramp?”

“I don’t have a take, Dr. Gabney. I came here to learn.”

“This McCloskey thing- very distressing to think such a man is roaming free. How did you find out?”

I told him.

“Ah, the daughter. Managing her own anxiety by attempting to control her mother’s behavior. Would that she’d shared her information. What else do you know about this McCloskey?”

“Just the basic facts of the assault. No one seems to know why he did it.”

“Yes,” he said. “An atypically close-mouthed psychopath- usually those types love to brag about their misdeeds. I suppose it would have been nice to know from the beginning. In terms of defining variables. But in the end, I don’t feel the treatment plan suffered. The key is to cut through all the talk and get them to change their behavior. Mrs. Ramp has been doing very well. I hope it hasn’t all been for naught.”

I said, “Maybe her disappearance is related to her progress- enjoying her freedom and deciding to grab a bigger chunk.”

“An interesting theory, but we discourage breaks in schedule.”

“Patients have been known to do their own thing.”

“To their detriment.”

“You don’t think sometimes they know what’s best for them?”

“Not generally. If I did, I couldn’t charge them three hundred dollars an hour in good faith, could I?”

Three hundred. At that rate- the kind of intensive treatment they did- three patients could carry the whole clinic.

I said, “Is that for both you and your wife?”

He grinned, and I knew I’d asked the right question. “Myself alone. My wife receives two hundred. Are you appalled by those figures, Dr. Delaware?”

“They’re higher than what I’m used to, but it’s a free country.”

“That it is. I spent most of my professional life in academia and in public hospitals, ministering to the poor. Setting up treatment programs for people who never paid a penny. At this stage in my life I thought it only fair that the rich be offered the benefit of my accumulated knowledge.”

Lifting the silver pen, he twirled it and put it down. “So,” he said, “you feel Mrs. Ramp may have run away.”

“I think it’s a possibility. When I spoke to her yesterday, she hinted that she was planning to make some changes in her life.”

“Really?” The blue eyes stopped moving. “What kind of changes?”

“She implied that she didn’t like the house she was living in- too big, all the opulence. That she wanted something simpler.”

“Something simpler,” he said. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s about it.”

“Well, disappearing like this can hardly be thought of as a simplification.”

“Do you have any clinical impressions that would explain what’s happened?”

“Mrs. Ramp is a nice lady,” he said. “Very sweet. Instinctively, one wants to help her. And clinically, her case is fairly simple, a textbook case of classically conditioned anxiety strengthened and maintained by operant factors: the anxiety-reducing effects of repeated avoidance and escape strengthened by the positively reinforcing qualities of reduced social responsibility and increased altruism of others.”

“Conditioned dependency?”

“Exactly. In many ways she’s like a child- all agoraphobics are. Dependent, ritualistic, routinized to the extent that they cling to primitive habits. As the phobia endures, it gains strength, and their behavioral repertoire drops off sharply. Eventually they become frozen by inertia- a sort of psychological cryogenics. Agoraphobics are psychological reactionaries, Dr. Delaware. They don’t move unless prodded sharply. Every step is taken with great trepidation. That’s why I can’t see her gaily running off in search of some ill-defined Xanadu.”

“Despite her progress?”

“Her progress is gratifying but she has a ways to go. My wife and I have each mapped out extensive plans.”

That sounded more like competition than collaboration. I didn’t comment.

Unwrapping another stick of gum, he slid it between his lips. “The treatment is well thought out- we offer full value in return for our appalling fees. In all probability, Mrs. Ramp will return to the roost and avail herself of it.”

“So you’re not worried about her.”

He chewed hard, made squirting noises. “I’m concerned, Dr. Delaware, but worrying is counterproductive. Anxiety-producing. I train my phobics to stay away from it and I train myself to practice what I preach.”

15

He walked me to the door, talking about science. As I made my way across the lawn I noticed the Saab had been moved forward into the driveway. Behind it was a gray Range Rover. The windshield was dusty, except for wiper arcs.

I visualized Gabney behind the wheel, forging through the mesquite, and drove away thinking what an odd couple the two of them were. At first glance she was an ice queen. Combative, accustomed to fighting for her rights- I could see why she and Melissa had raised each other’s hackles. But the frost was so thin it melted on scrutiny. Underneath, vulnerability. Like Gina’s. Had that formed the basis for an exceptional empathy?

Who’d introduced whom to small gray rooms and the art of Mary Cassatt?

Whatever the reason, she seemed to care. Gina’s disappearance had shaken her up.

In contrast, her husband seemed intent upon distancing himself from the whole affair. Shrugging off Gina’s pathology as routine, reducing pain to jargon. Yet, despite his nonchalance, he’d zipped down to L.A. all the way from Santa Ynez- a two-hour drive. So perhaps he was as worried as his wife and simply better at concealing it.

The old male-female split.

Men posture.

Women bleed.

I thought of what he’d told me about losing his son. How he’d told me. The ease with which he’d spun his tale suggested he’d mouthed it a thousand times before.

Working it through? Desensitization?

Or maybe he really had mastered the art of putting the past behind him.

Maybe one day I’d call him up and ask for lessons.

***

It was nine-fifty by the time I got back to Sussex Knoll. A single police cruiser was still patrolling the streets. I must have passed inspection because no one stopped me from pulling up to the gates.

Over the talk box Don Ramp’s voice was dry and tired.

“No, nothing,” he said. “Come on up.”

The gates yawned. I sped through. More outdoor bulbs had been switched on, creating a false daylight, bright and cold.

No other cars in front of the house. The Chaucer doors were open. Ramp stood between them in his shirtsleeves.

“Not a damned thing,” he said, after I’d climbed the steps. “What’d the doctors say?”

“Nothing significant.” I told him about Ursula’s call regarding Melvin Findlay.

His face fell.

I said, “Have you heard anything more from Chickering?”

“He called about half an hour ago. Nothing to report, she’s probably fine, not to worry- it’s not his wife out there. I asked him about contacting the FBI. He claims they won’t get involved unless there’s evidence of abduction, preferably something involving interstate transport of the victim.”

He threw up his hands, let them fall limply. “The victim. I don’t even want to think of her as that, but…”

He closed the doors. The entry hall was lit, but beyond it the house was in darkness.

He headed for a light switch on the other side of the entry, making scuffing sounds as he crossed the marble.

I said, “Did your wife ever say why McCloskey did it?”

He stopped, half-turned. “Why do you ask?”

“In terms of understanding her- how she dealt with the assault.”

“Dealt with it in what way?”

“Victims of crime often go on fact-finding missions- wanting to know about the criminal, his motives. What turned them into victims. In order to try to make some sense out of it and protect themselves from future victimizations. Did your wife ever do that? Because no one seems to know what McCloskey’s motive was.”

“No, she didn’t.” He resumed walking. “At least not as far as I know. And she had no idea why he did it. Frankly, we don’t talk much about it- I’m part of her present, not her past. But she did tell me that the bastard refused to say- the police couldn’t get it out of him. He was a drinker and a drug-fiend, but that doesn’t explain it, does it?”

“What kind of drugs did he use?”

He reached the switch, flicked, illuminated the huge front room in which Gina Ramp and I had waited yesterday. Yesterday seemed like ancient history. A swan-necked decanter filled with something amber and very clear sat alongside several old-fashioned glasses on a portable rosewood bar. He held out a glass to me. I shook my head. He poured a finger for himself, hesitated, doubled it, then stoppered the decanter and sipped.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Drugs were never my thing. This”- raising the glass-“and beer is about as daring as I get. I never knew him very well- just a bit from the studios. He was a hanger-on. Hung around Gina like a little leech. A nothing. Hollywood’s full of them. No talent of his own, so he got girls to pose for pictures.”

He walked farther into the room, stepped on carpeting that dampened his footsteps and restored the house to silence.

I followed him. “Is Melissa back yet?”

He nodded. “Up in her room. She went straight up, looked pretty beat.”

“Noel still with her?”

“No, Noel’s back at the Tankard- my restaurant. He works for me, parking cars, busing, some waiting. Good kid, real up-from-the-bootstraps story- he’s got a good future. Melissa’s too much for him, but I guess he’ll have to learn that for himself.”

“Too much in what way?”

“Too smart, too good-looking, too feisty. He’s madly in love with her and she walks all over him- not out of cruelty or snobbery. It’s just her style. She just forges straight ahead, not thinking.”

As if trying to compensate for the criticism, he said, “That’s one thing she isn’t- a snob. Despite all this.” Waving his free hand around the room. “Christ, can you imagine growing up here? I grew up in Lynwood when it was still mostly white. My dad was an independent truck driver with a bad temper. Meaning there were plenty of times nobody hired him. We always had enough to eat, but that was about it. I didn’t like having to scrounge, but I know now that it made me into a better person- not that Melissa’s not a good person. Basically she’s a real good kid. Only she’s used to having her way, just plows ahead when she wants something, regardless of what anyone else wants. Gina’s… situation made her grow up fast. Actually it’s kind of amazing she developed as well as she did.”

He sat down heavily on an overstuffed couch. “Guess I don’t need to tell you about kids- I’m just going on because frankly I’m pretty rattled by all this. Where the hell could she be? What about this detective- you reach him yet?”

“Not yet. Let me try again.”

He sprang up and brought back a cellular phone.

I dialed Milo’s home, got the recorded message, then heard it break.

“Hello?”

“Rick? This is Alex. Is Milo there?”

“Hi, Alex. Sure. We just got in- saw a bad movie. Hold on.”

Two seconds, then: “Yeah?”

“Ready to start early?”

“On what?”

“Private-eyeing?”

“It can’t wait till morning?”

“Something’s come up.” I looked over at Ramp. Staring at me, haggard. Choosing my words carefully, I recounted what had happened, including McCloskey’s questioning and release, and the news of Melvin Findlay’s death in prison. Expecting Milo to comment on either or both. Instead, he said, “She take any clothes with her?”

“Melissa says no.”

“How can Melissa be sure?”

“She says she knows the contents of her mother’s closet, could tell if anything was missing.”

Ramp looked at me sharply.

Milo said, “Even a skimpy little negligee?”

“I don’t think it was anything like that, Milo.”

“Why not?”

I shot a glance over at Ramp. Still staring, his drink untouched. “It doesn’t fit.”

“Ah. Hubby at close proximity?”

“Correct.”

“Okay, let’s switch to another lane. What have the local cops done, other than drive around?”

“That’s it as far as I know. No one’s too impressed with their level of competence.”

“They’re not known as stone geniuses out there, but what else should they be doing? Going door to door and antagonizing the trillionaires? Lady staying out late isn’t Judge Crater. It’s only been a few hours. And with the kind of car she’s driving, someone might actually see it. They put out bulletins- for what they’re worth?”

“The police chief said they did.”

“You hobnobbing with police chiefs now?”

“He was here.”

“The personal touch,” he said. “Ah, the rich.”

“What about the FBI?”

“Nah, those guys won’t touch it unless there’s definite evidence of a crime, preferably one that will make the headlines. Unless your affluent friends have heavy-duty political connections.”

“How heavy-duty?”

“Someone in a position to call Washington and lean on the director. Even then, she’s gonna have to be missing for a couple of days for the Feds- for anyone- to take it seriously. Without some kind of evidence of a bona fide crime, what they’ll do is eventually send over a couple of agents who look like actors, to take a report, march around the house in their junior G-man shades, French-kissing their walkie-talkies. What’s it been, six hours?”

I looked at my watch. “Closer to seven.”

“It doesn’t scream major felony, Alex. What else have you got to tell me?”

“Nothing much. I just got back from talking to her therapists. They had no major insights.”

“Well,” he said, “you know those types. Better at asking questions than answering them.”

“You have any you want to ask?”

“I could go through some motions.”

Ramp was sipping and eyeing me over the rim of his glass. I said, “That might be useful.”

“I guess I could make it over there in a half-hour or so, but basically it’s going to be a placebo routine. Because the kind of stuff you want to do in a real missing-persons case- financial searches, credit-card checks- have to take place during working hours. Anybody think of checking hospitals?”

“I assume the police have. If you’d like to-”

“No big sweat making a few calls. In fact, I can do plenty from right here rather than spend thirty minutes getting over there.”

“I think it would be a good idea to do it face-to-face.”

“You do, huh?”

“Yup.”

“Lots of shaky knees? Power of placebo?”

“Yup.”

“Hold on.” Hand over receiver. “Yeah, okay, Dr. Silverman’s not happy but he’s being saintly about it. Maybe I can even get him to pick out my tie.”

***

Ramp and I waited without talking much. He, drinking and sinking progressively lower into one of the overstuffed chairs. Me, thinking about how Melissa would be affected if her mother didn’t return soon.

I considered going up to her room to see how she was doing, remembered what Ramp had said about her being beat, and decided to let her rest. Depending on how things turned out, she might not be sleeping well for a while.

Half an hour passed, then another twenty minutes. When the chimes sounded I got to the door ahead of Ramp and opened it. Milo padded in, dressed as well as I’d ever seen him. Navy hopsack blazer, gray slacks, white shirt, maroon tie, brown loafers. Clean-shaven and he’d gotten a haircut- the usual lousy one, cropped too close at the back and sides, the sideburns trimmed to mid-ear. Three months off duty and he still looked like the arm of somebody’s law.

I did the introductions. Watched Ramp’s face change as he got a good look at Milo. Eyes narrowing, mustache twitching as if plagued by fleas.

Flinty suspicion. Marlboro Man staring down rustler varmints. Gabney’s cowboy suit would have looked better on him.

Milo must have seen it, too, but he didn’t react.

Ramp stared a while longer, then said, “I hope you can help.”

More suspicion. It had been a while since Milo’s picture had been on TV but maybe Ramp had a good memory. Actors- even stupid ones- often did. Or perhaps his memory had been prompted by good old-fashioned homophobia.

I said, “Detective Sturgis is on leave from the Los Angeles Police.” Pretty sure I’d mentioned that before.

Ramp stared.

Milo finally began to return the favor.

The two of them remained locked in a stare-fest. I thought of rodeo bulls in adjacent pens, snorting and pawing and butting the boards.

Milo broke first. “This is what I’ve been given so far.” He repeated, almost word for word, what I’d told him. “Accurate?”

“Yes,” said Ramp.

Milo grunted. Pulling a note pad and pen out of a jacket pocket, he turned pages, stopped, pointed with a thick finger. “I’ve confirmed that the San Labrador police put out countywide bulletins on her. Which is usually a waste of time, but with this car, maybe not. They’ve got the car listed as a 1954 Rolls-Royce sedan, license plate AD RR SD, Vehicle Identification Number SOG Twenty-two. Correct?”

“Correct.”

“Color?”

“Black over shell-gray.”

“Better than a Toyota,” said Milo, “in terms of conspicuousness. Before I came out I called a few of the local emergency rooms. No one fitting her description’s been brought in.”

“Thank God,” said Ramp. Sweating.

Milo looked up at the ceiling, lowered his eyes and took in the front rooms with one sweeping glance. “Nice house. How many rooms?”

The question caught Ramp off guard. “I’m not really sure- never counted. About thirty, thirty-five, I guess.”

“How many does your wife actually use?”

“Use? Basically, she just uses her suite. It’s three rooms- four including the bathroom. Sitting area, bedroom, plus a side room with bookshelves, a desk, some exercise equipment, a refrigerator.”

“Sounds like a home within a home,” said Milo. “Do you have one, too?”

“Just one room,” said Ramp, coloring. “Right next to hers.”

Milo wrote something down. “Any reason you can think of why she decided to drive to the doctor alone?”

“I don’t know- that wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to go with her. We were going to leave at three. She called me at two-fifteen- I was at my restaurant- and told me not to bother coming home, she’d be driving herself. I questioned it, but she said she’d be fine. I didn’t want to weaken her confidence, so I didn’t press the matter.”

“Thirty-five rooms,” said Milo, writing again. “Besides her suite, did she frequent any of the others? Keep stuff around?”

“Not to my knowledge. Why?”

“How large is the property?”

“Just under seven acres.”

“She walk around it much?”

“She’s comfortable walking around it, if that’s what you mean. She used to stroll quite a bit. I strolled with her, back when it was the only place she went. Lately- the last few months- she’s been leaving the property, taking short walks with Dr. Cunningham-Gabney.”

“Besides the front gate, is there another way to get in or out?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“No rear alleys?”

“No. The property abuts another estate- Dr. and Mrs. Elridge’s. There are high hedges in between. Ten feet or higher.”

“How many outbuildings?”

Ramp thought. “Let’s see, if you count the garages-”

“Garages? How many?”

“Ten. One long building with ten stalls, actually. It was built for her first husband’s antique car collection. Some of the vehicles are priceless. The doors are kept bolted at all times. Only the Dawn’s stall was left open.”

Milo jotted quickly, looked up. “Go on.”

Ramp looked puzzled.

Milo said, “Other buildings on the property.”

“Buildings,” said Ramp. “A potting shed, pool cabanas, a changing room off the tennis court. That’s it, unless you count the gazebo.”

“What about servants’ quarters?”

“The staff lives here in the house. One of the corridors upstairs leads to their quarters.”

“How many on the staff?”

“There’s Madeleine, of course. Two maids and the gardener. The gardener doesn’t live on the premises. He’s got five sons, none of whom work for us full time but all of whom are here from time to time, helping out.”

“Any of the staff actually see your wife leave?”

Ramp said, “One of the maids was polishing the entry, saw her walk out the door. I’m not sure if anyone actually saw her drive off. If you want to question them I can go get them right now.”

“Where are they?”

“Up in their rooms.”

“When do they go off shift?”

“At nine. They don’t always retire right away. Sometimes they stay in the kitchen- talking, having coffee. I sent them up early tonight. Didn’t want any hysteria.”

“They pretty upset?”

Ramp nodded. “They’ve known her a long time, tend to be protective.”

“What about other homes?”

“Only one. At the beach. Broad Beach. Malibu. She’s never gone there, to my knowledge. Doesn’t like the water- she doesn’t even swim in the pool here. But I called over there anyway. Twice. Nothing.”

“Did she say anything recently- over the past few days or even weeks- about taking off? Going away by herself?”

“Absolutely not, and I-”

“No hints dropped? Remarks that didn’t seem to mean anything then but do now?”

“I said no!” Ramp’s color deepened. He squinted so hard, my head began to ache.

Milo tapped his pen and waited.

Ramp said, “That wouldn’t make sense. She wanted more involvement with other people, not less. That was the whole point of her treatment- getting back into the social whirl. And frankly, I don’t see the point of this line of questioning- who the hell cares what she talked about? She didn’t go on vacation, for Christ’s sake! Something happened to her out there. Why don’t you drive downtown and shake up that psychopath McCloskey! Teach the idiots who let him go something about police work!”

Breathing hard. Temple veins swollen.

Milo said, “Before I came here, I spoke to the detective at Central Division who interviewed McCloskey. Fellow named Bradley Lewis- not the best cop, but not the worst, either. McCloskey’s alibi is ironclad- he was feeding the homeless at the mission where he lives. Peeling potatoes and washing dishes and ladling out soup all afternoon. Dozens of people saw him, including the priest who runs the place. He never left from noon till eight. So there’s no way the police could have kept him in custody.”

“What about as a material witness?”

“No crime, no witness, Mr. Ramp. As far as they’re concerned it’s just a situation of some lady who stayed out late.”

“But look who we’re talking about- what he did!”

“True. But he served his time; his parole’s over. Far as the law’s concerned, he’s Joe Citizen. The police have zero hold over him.”

“Can’t you do anything?”

“My hold’s less than zero.”

“I wasn’t referring to legal niceties, Mr. Sturgis.”

Milo smiled, took a deep breath. “Sorry. Donated my rubber hose to Goodwill.”

“I’m serious, Mr. Sturgis.”

The smile died. “So am I, Mr. Ramp. If that’s the kind of help you’re after, you’ve dialed a very wrong number.”

He put his pen away.

Ramp said, “Look, I didn’t mean to-”

Milo held out a hand. “I know this is hell. I know the system stinks. But rousting McCloskey right now is not in your wife’s best interest. Central Division said after they let him go, they drove him home- guy doesn’t have a car- and he went to bed. Let’s say I go over there, wake him up. He refuses to let me in. So I force my way in, play Dirty Harry. In the movies that works great- the power of intimidation. He confesses all, and the good guys win. In the real world, he hires a lawyer. Sues my ass, and yours, and the media find out. Meanwhile your wife comes waltzing in- she had car trouble, couldn’t get to a phone. A real happy ending except now she’s back on page one. The main feature on A Current Affair. Not to mention having to watch you cough up some dough to McCloskey or play defendant for a couple of years. What’s that gonna do for her psychological progress?”

Ramp said, “Christ, this is insanity,” and shook his head.

“I asked Central Division to keep a watch on him. They said they’d try, but to be truthful that’s not worth a lot. If she’s not back by morning, I’ll pay him a visit. If you can’t handle waiting, I’ll drive down there right now. When he doesn’t let me in, I’ll sit out there all night watching his door, write you a detailed surveillance report that sounds pretty impressive. I’m charging you seventy dollars an hour plus expenses. A bullshit hour gets billed the same as a productive one. But I just figured for that kind of money, you’re entitled to some independent judgment on my part.”

“And what is your independent judgment, Mr. Sturgis?”

“At this point, there are better ways of spending my time.”

“Such as?”

“Such as making more hospital calls. Phoning all-night service stations. The auto club- if you’re members.”

“We are. Those sound like things I can do.”

“You can. Feel free. The more people working on it, the faster we’ll get it done. If you want to do it yourself, I’ll write you up a list of the other things you can do and be on my way.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Hooking up with the paramedics and the independent ambulance companies, keeping in touch with the traffic divisions of the various police departments in order to make sure information doesn’t get lost in the shuffle- it happens a lot, believe me. If you want to go further, check out airlines, air charter services, car rental agencies. Run credit-card traces- find out what cards she carries, have the companies flag the numbers, so when they’re used to make a purchase, we know where and when and get the information as soon as possible. If she’s not back by morning, I’d also get to work on her bank records, see if she made any major withdrawals recently. Do you cosign on her accounts?”

“No, our finances are independent.”

“No shared accounts?”

“No, Mr. Sturgis.” Ramp had folded his arms across his chest. Each word seemed to crank him tighter. “Withdrawals, airlines- what are you saying? That she deliberately ran away?”

“I’m sure she didn’t, but-”

“She definitely didn’t.”

Milo ran his hand over his face. “Mr. Ramp, let’s hope she walks in any minute. If she doesn’t, it’s got to be approached as a missing-persons case, and missing-persons cases aren’t great for the ego- the egos of those left waiting. Because to do the job properly, you’ve got to assume anything’s possible. It’s like a doctor biopsying a lump- chances are it’s benign. The doctor quotes you statistics, smiles, and tells you he’s almost positive it’s nothing to worry about. But he cuts it open anyway and sends it to the lab.”

He unbuttoned his jacket, jammed both hands in his trouser pockets, put the weight of one leg on its heel and arced it back and forth, like a runner doing an ankle stretch.

Ramp looked down at the foot, then up at Milo’s green eyes.

“So,” he said, “I’m going to get cut.”

“It’s your choice,” said Milo. “The alternative is just to sit tight and wait.”

“No, no- go ahead, do all those things. You can do them faster. I suppose you’ll want a check before you begin.”

Milo said, “I’ll want one before I leave- seven hundred dollars, which is a ten-hour advance. But first round up the servants, call the gardener, and get him back here, along with any sons who were working today and might have seen her. Meantime, I’d like to check out her suite, go through her stuff.”

Ramp started to question that, didn’t like the answers he created for himself, and swallowed them.

Milo said, “I’ll be as tidy as possible. You want to watch, that’s okay.”

Ramp said, “No, that’s fine. Go ahead. This way.” Pointing to the staircase.

The two of them began climbing, side by side, sharing the same wide marble step but keeping maximum distance.

I followed two steps behind, feeling like the guy who introduced Ali to Foreman.

***

When we got to the top, I heard a door open, saw a sliver of light slant across the floor of one of the corridor spokes, two doors down from Gina Ramp’s room. It widened to a triangle, then was darkened by shadow as Melissa walked out into the hall, still in shirt and jeans, socks on her feet. Walking groggily, rubbing her eyes.

I called her name softly.

She started, turned. Ran toward us. “Is she-”

Ramp shook his head. “Nothing yet. This is Detective Sturgis. Dr. Delaware’s… friend. Detective, Ms. Melissa Dickinson, Mrs. Ramp’s daughter.”

Milo held out a hand. She barely grazed it, withdrew, looked up at him. There were crease marks on her face- the false scars of slumber. Her lips were dry and her eyelids were swollen. “What are you going to do to find her? What can I do?”

“Were you here at home when your mother left?” said Milo.

“Yes.”

“What kind of mood was she in?”

“Okay. Excited about going out by herself- actually, nervous, and she was covering it by trying to look excited. I was worried she’d have an attack. I tried to talk her out of it, told her I’d go with her. But she refused- she even raised her voice to me. She’d never raised her voice to me…”

Biting back tears.

“I should have insisted.”

Milo said, “Did she say why she wanted to go by herself?”

“No. I kept asking her that, but she refused. It wasn’t like her at all- I should have known something was wrong.”

“Did you actually see her drive away?”

“No. She told me not to follow her- ordered it.” Biting her lip. “So I went to my room. Lay down and listened to music and fell asleep- just like I did now. I can’t believe it- why am I sleeping so much?”

Ramp said, “Stress, Meliss.”

She said to Milo: “What do you think happened to her?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out. Your stepdad will be calling the staff together, see if anyone knows anything. In the meantime, I’ll be checking out her room and making phone calls- you can help with some of those, if you want.”

“Calls to where?”

“Routine stuff,” said Milo. “Gas stations, the auto club. The Highway Patrol. Some of the local hospitals- just to be careful.”

“Hospitals,” she said, putting a hand on her chest. “Oh, God!”

“Just to be careful,” Milo repeated. “The San Labrador cops have already called a few. So have I, and she hasn’t been reported injured. But it pays to be careful.”

She said “Hospitals” again and began crying. Milo put a hand on her shoulder.

Ramp pulled out a handkerchief, said, “Here.” She glanced at it, shook her head, used her hand to wipe her eyes.

Ramp looked at the cloth, put it back in his pocket, and took a couple of steps back.

Melissa said to Milo, “Why do you want to see her room?”

“To get a feel for the type of person she was. See if anything’s out of order. Maybe she left some clue. You can help me with that, too.” “Shouldn’t we be doing something- be out there looking for her?”

Ramp said, “Waste of time.”

She turned on him. “That’s your opinion.”

“No, it’s Mr. Sturgis’s opinion.”

“Then let him tell me himself.”

Ramp squinted, motionless except for tiny flexes along the jawline. “I’ll go get the staff,” he said, and walked away quickly down the left-hand corridor.

When he was out of earshot, Melissa said, “You should be keeping an eye on him.

Milo said, “Why’s that?”

“She’s got a lot more money than he does.”

Milo looked at her. Ran a hand over his face. “You think he might have done something to her?”

“If he thought it might get him something, who knows? He sure likes the things money can buy- tennis, living here, the beach house. But everything belongs to Mother. I don’t know why they got married- they don’t sleep together or do anything together. It’s like he’s just visiting- some damned houseguest who refuses to leave. I don’t see why she married him.”

“They fight much?”

“Never,” she said. “But big deal. They’re not together enough to fight. What could she see in him?”

“Ever ask her?” I said.

“In a roundabout way- I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I asked her what to look for in a man. She said kindness and tolerance were the most important things.”

“That describe him?” said Milo.

“I think he’s just smooth. Out for luxury.”

“Does he get her money if something happens to her?”

It was more than she was willing to confront. Her hand flew to her mouth. “I… I don’t know.”

“Easy enough to find out,” he said. “If she doesn’t show up tomorrow morning, I’ll start looking into her finances. Maybe I’ll find something up in her room right now.”

“Okay,” she said. “You don’t really think something happened to her, do you?”

“No reason to. And in terms of what you mentioned before- going out there looking for her- your local cops are already patrolling extensively. I saw them on the way over and it’s what they do best. There are also countywide bulletins out for her- I checked myself, didn’t take that on faith. Dr. Delaware will tell you I’m the original skeptic. That doesn’t mean all those police departments are gonna go out of their way to look for your mother. But a Rolls-Royce may just catch their eye. If she’s not back soon, we can have the bulletins expanded, can even tell the papers she’s missing- but once those guys sink their teeth in, they never let go, so we’ve gotta be careful.”

“What about McCloskey!” she said. “Do you know about him?”

Milo nodded.

“Then why don’t you go out there and… pressure him? Noel and I would have done it if we knew where he lived- maybe I’ll find out and do it.”

“That’s not a very good idea,” said Milo and repeated the speech he’d given Ramp.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but she’s my mother and I’ve got to do what I think is right.”

“How do you think your mother would like seeing you in a drawer in the morgue?”

Her mouth dropped open. She closed it. Drew herself up. Next to Milo she looked tiny, almost comically so. “You’re just trying to scare me.”

“You’re right.”

“Well, it won’t work.”

“Damn shame.” He looked at his Timex. “Been here a quarter hour and I’ve done diddly. Wanna stand around talking or work?”

“Work,” she said. “Of course-”

“Her room,” said Milo.

“Over here. C’mon.” She ran down the hall, all traces of sleepiness gone.

Milo watched her and muttered something I couldn’t make out.

We followed her.

She’d reached the door, was holding it open. “Here,” she said. “I’ll show you where everything is.”

Milo walked into the sitting room. I went in after him.

She slid past me and faced Milo, blocking the door to the bedroom. “One more thing.”

“What?”

I’m paying you. Not Don. So treat me like an adult.”

16

Milo said, “If you don’t like the way I’m treating you, I’m sure you’ll let me know. In terms of payment, work it out with him.”

He pulled out his pad again and looked around the sitting room. Went to the gray couch. Poked at the pillows, ran his hand under them. “What is this, a waiting room for visitors?”

“A sitting room,” said Melissa. “She didn’t have visitors. My father designed it this way because he thought it was genteel. It used to be different- very elegant, lots more furniture- but she cleaned it out and put this in. She ordered it from a catalogue. She’s basically a simple person. This is really her favorite place- she spends most of her time here.”

“Doing what?”

“Reading- she reads a lot. Loves to read. And she exercises- there’s equipment back there.” Crooking a finger in the direction of the bedroom.

Milo peered at the Cassatt.

I said, “How long’s she had that print, Melissa?”

“My father gave it to her. When she was pregnant with me.”

“Did he have other Cassatts?”

“Probably. He had lots of works on paper. They’re stored upstairs on the third floor. To keep them out of the sunlight. That’s why it’s perfect for here. No windows.”

“No windows,” said Milo. “That doesn’t bother her?”

“She’s a sunny person,” said Melissa. “She makes her own light.”

“Uh-huh.” He went back to the gray couch. Removed the cushions and put them back.

I said, “How long ago did she change the decor?”

Both of them looked at me.

“Just curious,” I said. “About any changes she might have made recently.”

Melissa said, “It was recent. A few months ago- three or four. The stuff that was in here was Father’s taste- really ornamental. She had it put up on the third floor, in storage. Told me she felt kind of guilty because Father had spent so much time picking it out. But I told her it was okay- it was her place; she should do what she wanted.”

Milo opened the door to the bedroom and stepped through.

I heard him say, “She didn’t change this too much, did she?”

Melissa hurried after him. I walked in, last.

He was standing in front of the canopied bed. Melissa said, “I guess she likes it the way it is.”

“Guess so,” said Milo.

The room seemed even bigger from the inside. At least twenty-five feet square, with fifteen-foot ceilings embroidered with crown moldings fashioned to resemble braided cloth. A six-foot white marble mantel was topped with a gold clock and a menagerie of miniature silver birds. A gold eagle sat perched atop the clock, eyeing the smaller fowl. Groupings of Empire chairs upholstered in olive-green silk damask, a baroque threefold screen painted in trompe l’oeil flowers, a scattering of tiny gold-inlaid tables of doubtful function, paintings of country scenes and bosomy maidens with uncertainty in their eyes.

The braids snaked toward the center of the ceiling, terminating in a plaster knot from which a crystal and silver chandelier dangled like a giant watch fob. The bed was covered with a quilted off-white satin spread. Tapestry pillows were arranged at the head in a precise overlapping row, like fallen dominoes. A silk robe lay neatly across the foot. The bed was set on a pedestal, adding to its already considerable height. The finials of the posts nearly touched the ceiling.

Weak light shone from crystal wall sconces beside the bed, transforming the off-white color scheme to the color of English mustard, and turning the plum carpeting gray. Milo flipped a switch and flooded the room with the high-watt glare of the chandelier.

He looked under the bed, straightened, and said, “You could eat off it. When was the room made up?”

“Probably this morning. Mother usually does it herself- not the vacuuming or anything strenuous. But she likes to make her own bed. She’s very neat.”

I followed his glance to the chinoiserie nightstands. Ivory pseudo-antique phones on both. Bud vase with red rose centered on the one to the left. A hardcover book next to it.

All the draperies were drawn. Milo went to one of the casement windows, pulled aside the curtains, cranked, and looked out. Fresh air puffed in.

After studying the view for a while, he turned, walked to the left side of the bed, picked up the book, and opened it. Skimmed a few pages, turned it upside down, and gave it a couple of shakes. Nothing fell out. Opening the door of the stand, he bent and peered in. Empty.

I went over and looked at the book’s front cover. Paul Theroux’s Patagonia Express.

Melissa said, “It’s a travel book.”

Milo said nothing, kept looking around.

The wall opposite the bed was occupied by a nine-foot walnut-and-gilt armoire and a wide carved fruitwood dresser inlaid with marquetry herbs and flowers. Perfume bottles and a marble clock sat atop the dresser. Milo opened the top section of the armoire. Inside was a color TV, a Sony 19-inch that looked to be at least ten years old. Atop the television was a TV Guide. Milo opened it, flipped through it. The bottom of the armoire was empty.

“No VCR?” he said.

“She doesn’t go in for movies much.”

He moved down to the dresser, slid open drawers, ran his hands through satin and silk.

Melissa watched for several moments, then said, “What exactly are you looking for?”

“Where does she keep the rest of her clothes?”

“Over there.” She pointed to carved swinging doors on the left side of the room. Indian rosewood doors inlaid with vines of copper and brass and topped with a motif that conjured up the Taj Mahal.

Milo shoved them open unceremoniously.

On the other side was a short, squat foyer with three more doors. The first opened to a green marble bathroom accented with champagne-tinted mirrors and equipped with a sunken whirlpool tub expansive enough for family bathing, gold fixtures, green marble commode and bidet. The medicine cabinet was camouflaged as just another mirrored panel. Milo pushed, looked inside. Aspirin, toothpaste, shampoo, lipstick tubes, a few jars of cosmetics. Half-empty.

“She take anything as far as you can tell?”

Melissa shook her head. “This is all she keeps. She doesn’t use much makeup.”

Beyond the second door was a room-sized closet outfitted with a makeup table and padded bench at the center and organized as precisely as a surgical scrub tray: champagne-colored padded hangers, all facing the same way. Two walls of cedar, two of pink damask. Double-hung hardwood dowels.

Clothes organized by type, but there wasn’t much to organize. Mostly one-piece dresses in pale colors. A few gowns and furs at the back, some still bearing their sales labels. Perhaps ten pairs of shoes, three of them sneakers. A collection of sweats folded in storage compartments along the back wall. No more than a quarter of the dowel-space filled.

Milo took his time there, checking pockets, kneeling and inspecting the floor beneath the garments. Finding nothing and going into the third room.

Combination library and gym. The walls lined floor to ceiling with oak shelves, the floor high-lacquer hardwood tile. Interlocking rubber mats covered the front half. A stationary bicycle, rowing machine, and motorized treadmill sat on the rubber along with a free-standing rack of low-weight, chrome-plated dumbbells. A cheap digital watch hung from the handlebars of the bike. Two unopened bottles of Evian water stood atop a small refrigerator alongside the weight rack. Milo opened it. Empty.

He moved to the back and ran his finger along some of the bookshelves. I read titles.

More Theroux. Jan Morris. Bruce Chatwin.

Atlases. Books of landscape photography. Travelogues dating from the Victorian age to modern times. Audubon birding guides to the West. Fielding Guides to everywhere else. Seventy years of National Geographic in brown binders. Bound collections of Smithsonian, Oceans, Natural History, Travel, Sport Diver, Connoisseur.

For the first time since he’d arrived at the mansion, Milo looked troubled. But only momentarily. He scanned the rest of the bookcases, said, “Seems like we’ve got a theme going here.”

Melissa didn’t answer.

Neither did I.

No one daring to put the obvious into words.

***

We went back into the bedroom. Melissa seemed subdued.

Milo said, “Where does she keep her bankbooks and financial records?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure she keeps anything here.”

“Why’s that?”

“Her banking’s handled for her- by Mr. Anger, over at First Fiduciary Trust. He’s the president. His father knew mine.”

“Anger,” said Milo, writing it down. “Know the number offhand?”

“No. The bank’s on Cathcart- just a few blocks from where you turn off to get here.”

“Any idea how many accounts she keeps there?”

“Not the foggiest. I have two- my trust account and one that I use for expenses.” Meaningful pause. “Father wanted it that way.”

“What about your stepdad? Where does he bank?”

“I have no idea.” Kneading her hands.

“Any reason to think he’s in any financial trouble?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“What kind of restaurant does he run?”

“Steak and beer.”

“Does he seem to do pretty well?”

“Well enough. He brings in lots of imported beers. In San Labrador, that’s considered exotic.”

“Speaking of which,” said Milo, “I could use a drink- juice or soda. With ice. Is there a refrigerator up here with something in it?”

She nodded. “There’s a service kitchen at the end of the staff wing. I can get you something from there. What about you, Dr. Delaware?”

“Sure,” I said.

Milo said, “Coke.”

I said I’d have the same.

She said, “Two Cokes.” Waited.

“What is it?” said Milo.

“Are you finished in here?”

He looked around one more time. “Sure.”

We passed through the sitting room and went out into the hall. Melissa closed the door and said, “Two Cokes. I’ll be right back.”

When she was gone, I said, “So what do you think?”

“What do I think? That money sure don’t buy no happiness, brutha. That room”- cocking a thumb at the door-“it’s like a goddamn hotel suite. Like she came in on the Concorde, unpacked, went out to see the sights. How the hell could she live like that, not leaving a piece of herself anywhere? And what the hell did she do with herself all day?”

“Read and toned her muscles.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Travel books. It’s like a bad joke. Some shlock movie director’s version of irony.”

I said nothing.

He said, “What? Think I’ve lost my sense of compassion?”

“You’re talking about her in the past tense.”

“Do me a favor, don’t interpret. I’m not saying she’s dead, just that she’s gone. My gut feeling is she’s been planning to fly the coop for a while, finally gathered enough courage and did it. Probably jamming that Rolls along Route 66 with the windows open, singing at the top of her lungs.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t see her abandoning Melissa.”

He gave a small, hard laugh. “Alex, I know she’s your patient and you obviously like her, but from what I’ve seen, the kid grates. You heard what she said about Mommy never raising her voice to her. That normal? Maybe Mommy finally blew her stack. See the way she treated Ramp? And suggesting to me I investigate him without any solid reason to? I couldn’t put up with that shit for very long. Course, I don’t have a Ph.D. in kiddy psych. But neither does Mommy.”

I said, “She’s a good kid, Milo. Her mother’s disappeared. Time to cut her a little slack, don’t you think?”

“Was she sweetness and light before Mommy split? You yourself said she pulled a fit and ran out on Mommy yesterday.”

“Okay, she can be difficult. But her mother cared about her. The two of them are close. I just don’t see her running out.”

“No offense,” he said, “but how well do you really know the lady, Alex? You met her once. She used to be an actress. And in terms of their being close, think of it: never yelling at a kid. For eighteen years? No matter how good a kid is, they’re gonna bear some yelling once in a while, right? The lady must have been sitting on a powder keg. Anger at what McCloskey did to her. At losing her husband. At being stuck up here because of her problems. That’s one giant keg, right? The fight with the kid was what finally lit it- the kid mouthed off one time too many. Mom waited a long time for her to come back, and when she didn’t, she said fuck it, to hell with reading about distant places, let’s go see some.”

I said, “Assuming you’re right, do you think she’ll come back?”

“Yeah, probably. She didn’t take much with her. But who knows?”

“So what’s next? More placebo?”

“Not more. The placebo hasn’t started yet. When I scoped out the room it was for real. Trying to get a feel for her. As if it were a crime scene. And you know, even with all the bloody rooms I’ve been in, that place ranks up there on the Freaky Scale. It felt… empty. Bad vibes. I saw jungles in Asia that made me feel like that. Dead silent, but you knew something was going on beneath the surface.”

He shook his head. “Listen to me. Vibes. I sound like some New Age asshole.”

“No,” I said. “I felt it, too. Yesterday, when I was here, the house reminded me of an empty hotel.”

He rolled his eyes, flashed a Halloween mask grimace, clawed his hands, and scraped at the air.

“The Rrrich Motel,” he said in a Lugosi accent. “They check in, but they don’t check out.”

I laughed. Totally tasteless. But it felt cruelly good. Like the jokes that flew around at staff meetings back in my hospital days.

He said, “I figure the best thing to do is give it a couple of days of my time. Chances are she’ll be back by then. The alternative is for me to quit right now, but all that would do is spook both the kid and Ramp and send them rushing to someone else. At least with me they won’t get ripped off. Might as well be my seventy an hour.”

“Meant to ask you about that,” I said. “You told me fifty.”

“It was fifty. Then I drove up and saw the house. Now that I’ve seen more of the interior, I’m sorry I didn’t make it ninety.”

“Sliding scale?”

“Absolutely. Share the wealth. Half an hour in this place and I’m ready to vote socialist.”

“Maybe Gina felt the same way,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You saw how few clothes she had. And the sitting room. The way she redecorated. Ordering from a catalogue. Maybe she just wanted out.”

“Or maybe it’s just reverse snobbery, Alex. Like owning expensive art and storing it upstairs.”

I was about to tell him about the Cassatt in Ursula Cunningham-Gabney’s office but was interrupted by Melissa, returning with two glasses. At her heels were Madeleine and two stocky Hispanic women in their thirties who came up to the Frenchwoman’s shoulder, one with long plaited hair, the other with a short shag cut. If they’d removed their white uniforms for the evening, they’d put them back on. Along with fresh makeup. They looked hyper-alert and wary, travelers passing through Customs at a hostile port.

“This is Detective Sturgis,” Melissa said, handing us the Cokes. “He’s here to figure out what happened to Mother. Detective, meet Madeleine de Couer, Lupe Ortega, and Rebecca Maldonado.”

Milo said, “Ladies.”

Madeleine folded her arms across her bosom and nodded. The other two women stared.

Melissa said, “We’re waiting for Sabino- the gardener. He lives in Pasadena. It shouldn’t take long.” To us: “They were waiting in their rooms. I couldn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be able to come out. Or even why you shouldn’t get started right now. I already asked them-”

The doorbell cut her short.

She said, “One sec,” and ran down the stairs. I watched her from the top of the landing, followed her descent to the front door. Before she got there, Ramp was opening it. Sabino Hernandez walked in, trailed by his five sons. All six men had on short-sleeved sports shirts and slacks and stood at parade rest. One wore a bolo tie; a couple had on sparkling white guayaberas. They began glancing around- awestruck by circumstances or the scale of the house. I wondered how many times, after all these years, they’d actually been inside.

***

We assembled in the front room. Milo standing, note pad and pen out, everyone else sitting on the edges of the overstuffed chairs. Nine years had turned Hernandez into a very old man- white-haired, hunched, and loose-jawed. His hands had a permanent tremor. He looked too frail for physical labor. His sons, transformed from boys to men by the same stretch of time, surrounded him like stakeposts protecting an ailing tree.

Milo asked his questions, told them to search their memories very carefully. Got wet eyes from the women, bright stares from the men.

The only new development was an eyewitness account of Gina’s departure. Two of the Hernandez sons had been working in the front of the house at the time Gina Ramp had driven out. One of them, Guillermo, had been pruning a tree near the driveway and had actually seen her drive by. Seen her clearly, because he’d been standing to the right of the right-hand drive Rolls-Royce, and the tinted window had been rolled down.

The seÑora hadn’t been smiling or frowning- just a serious look.

Both hands on the steering wheel.

Driving very slowly.

She hadn’t noticed him or said goodbye.

That was a little unusual- the seÑora was usually very friendly. But no, she hadn’t looked frightened or upset. Not angry, either. Something else- he searched for the word in English. Conferred with his brother. Hernandez Senior looked straight ahead, seemed cut off from the proceedings.

Thinking, said Guillermo. She looked as if she’d been thinking about something.

“Any idea what?” Milo asked.

Guillermo shook his head.

Milo addressed the question to all of them.

Blank faces.

One of the Hispanic maids began crying again.

Madeleine prodded her and stared straight ahead.

Milo asked the Frenchwoman if she had something to add.

She said Madame was a wonderful person.

Non. She had no idea where Madame had gone.

Non, Madame hadn’t taken anything with her other than her purse. Her Judith Leiber black calfskin purse. The only one she owned. Madame didn’t like a lot of different things but what she had was excellent. Madame was… trÈs classique.

More tears from Lupe and Rebecca.

The Hernandezes shifted in their seats.

Lost looks from all of them. Ramp stared at his knuckles. Even Melissa seemed drained of fight.

Milo probed gently, then more insistently. Doing as deft a job as I’d ever seen.

Coming up with nothing.

A tangible sense of helplessness settled over the room.

During the course of Milo’s questions, no pecking order had emerged, no one stepping forth to speak for the group.

Once upon a time it had been different.

Looks like Jacob’s a good friend.

He takes care of everything.

Dutchy had never been replaced.

Now this.

As if the big house were being assaulted by destiny, allowed to crumble, piece by piece.

17

Milo dismissed the staff and asked for a place to work. Ramp said, “Anywhere’s okay.”

Melissa said, “The downstairs study,” and led us to the windowless room with the Goya painting. The desk at the center was white and French and much too small for Milo. He sat behind it, tried to get comfortable, gave up, and swung his glance from wall to book-lined wall.

“Nice view.”

Melissa said, “Father used it as his study. He designed it without windows for maximum concentration.”

Milo said, “Uh-huh.” He opened desk drawers and closed them. Took out his note pad and placed it on the desk. “Got any phone books?”

Melissa said, “Here,” and opened a cabinet beneath the shelves. Removing an armful of directories, she piled them in front of Milo, obscuring the bottom half of his face. “The black one on top’s a San Labrador private directory. Even people who don’t list their numbers in the regular phone book put them in here.”

Milo divided the books into two short stacks. “Let’s start with her credit-card numbers.”

“She has all the major ones,” said Ramp, “but I don’t know the numbers offhand.”

“Where does she keep her statements?”

“At the bank. First Fiduciary, here in San Labrador. The bills go straight there and the bank pays them.”

Milo turned to Melissa. “Know any numbers?” She shook her head and gave a guilty look, like a student caught unprepared.

Milo scribbled. “What about her driver’s license number?”

Silence.

“Easy enough to get from the DMV,” said Milo, still writing. “Let’s go for vital statistics- height, weight, birthdate, maiden name.”

“Five eight and a half,” said Melissa. “Around a hundred and twenty-five pounds. Her birthday’s March twenty-third. Her maiden name’s Paddock. Regina Marie Paddock.” She spelled it.

Milo said, “Year of birth?”

“Nineteen forty-six.”

“Social security number?”

“I don’t know.”

Ramp said, “I’ve never seen her card- I’m sure Glenn Anger can get you the number from her tax returns.”

Milo said, “She doesn’t keep any papers around the house?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“The San Labrador police didn’t ask you for any of those things?”

“No,” said Ramp. “Maybe they figured on getting the information elsewhere- from the city rolls.”

Melissa said, “Right.”

Milo put down his pen. “Okay, time to get to work.” He reached for the phone.

Neither Ramp nor Melissa budged.

Milo said, “Feel free to stick around for the show, but if you’re drowsy, I promise this will finish you off.”

Melissa frowned and left the room quickly.

Ramp said, “I’ll leave you to your duties, Mr. Sturgis,” and turned heel.

Milo picked up the phone.

I went looking for Melissa and found her in the kitchen, looking in one of the wall lockers. She pulled out a bottle of orange soda, twisted the cap, got a glass from an upper cabinet, and poured. Carelessly. Some of the soda spilled on the counter. She didn’t attempt to clean it.

Still unaware of my presence, she raised the glass to her lips and gulped so quickly it made her cough. Sputtering, she slapped her chest. Saw me and slapped harder. When the paroxysms died, she said, “Oh, that was attractive.” In a smaller voice: “Can’t do anything right.”

I came closer, ripped a piece of paper towel from a roll impaled upon a wooden holder, and mopped up the spill.

She said, “Let me do that,” and took the towel. Wiped spots that were already dry.

“I know how rough this has been for you,” I said. “Two days ago we were talking about Harvard.”

“Harvard,” she said. “Big damned deal.”

“Hopefully it’ll return to being a big deal soon.”

“Yeah, right. As if I could ever leave now.”

Wadding up the towel, she tossed it onto the counter. Lifted her head and looked straight at me, inviting debate.

I said, “In the end, you’ll do what’s best for you.”

Her eyes flickered with uncertainty, shifted to the soda bottle.

“God, I didn’t even offer you any. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I just had that Coke.”

As if she hadn’t heard, she said, “Here, let me get you some.” She reached up into the cupboard and retrieved another glass. As she placed it on the counter, her arm jerked and the glass skidded across the shelf. She caught it before it dropped on the floor. Dropped it and fumbled to catch it again. Staring at it, breathing hard, she said, “Damn!” and ran out of the room.

I followed her again, searched for her throughout the ground floor of the house, but couldn’t find her. Went up the green stairs and headed toward her room. The door was open. I looked in, saw no one, called out her name, got no answer. Entering, I was hit by deceitful memories: crystalline recollections of a place I’d never been.

The ceiling was painted with a mural of gowned courtesans enjoying a place that could have been Versailles. Carpeting the color of raspberry sherbet covered the floor. The walls were pink-and-gray lamb-and-pussycat wallpaper broken by lace-trimmed windows. The bed was a miniature of her mother’s. Shelves brimming with music boxes and miniature dishes and figurines lined the room. Three dollhouses. A zoo of stuffed animals.

The precise images she’d described nine years ago.

The place she’d never slept.

The only concession to young adulthood was a desk to the right of the bed bearing a personal computer, dot-matrix printer, and a pile of books.

I inspected the books. Two manuals on preparation for the SAT. The College Game: Planning Your Academic Career. Fowler’s Guide to American Universities. Information brochures from half a dozen first-rate colleges. The one from Harvard, dogeared, a bookmark inserted in the Psychology section.

Manuals for the future in a room that clung to the past. As if her mind had developed while the rest had stagnated.

Had I been fooled, nine years ago, into believing she’d changed more than she had?

I left the room, considered looking for her on the second and third floors, and realized how daunting that would be.

I went downstairs and stood alone in the entry hall. Man without a function. A ten-foot marble clock, with a face almost too ornate to read, said 11:45. Gina Ramp had been gone almost nine hours.

I’d been hanging around for more than half of it.

Time to catch some sleep, leave the detecting to the pros.

I went to tell the pro I was leaving.

***

He was standing behind the desk, tie loosened, sleeves rolled carelessly mid-forearm, phone tucked under his chin, writing rapidly. “Uh-huh… Is he generally reliable?… He does? Didn’t know you guys were doing that well… That so?… Really… Maybe I should be thinking about that, yeah… Anyway, what time was this?… Okay, yeah, I know where it is. I appreciate your talking to me at this stage of the game… Yeah, yeah, officially, though I don’t know that they’re actively involved- San Labrador is… Yeah, I know. Just for strokes, though… Yeah, thanks. Appreciate it. Bye.”

He hung up, said, “That was the Highway Patrol. Looks like my freeway theory’s getting some validation. We’ve got a possible sighting of the car. Three-thirty this afternoon, on the 210, heading east, out near Azuza. That’s about a ten-mile drive from here, so it makes sense time-wise.”

“What do you mean “possible sighting,’ and why did it take so long to find out if it was spotted that long ago?”

“The source is an off-duty motorcycle guy. He was hanging out at home, listening to his scanner, happened to hear the bulletin and called in. Seems at three-thirty he’d pulled some speeder off onto the left shoulder of the westbound 210, was in the process of writing out a ticket when he happened to notice the Rolls, or one just like it, zip by on the eastbound. It happened too fast for him to get the plates, other than to notice they were English. That answer both your questions?”

“Who was driving?”

“He didn’t see that either. Not that he would’ve if it was her, because of the smoked windows.”

“Did he notice smoked windows?”

“Nope. It was the car he was looking at. The body-style. Seems he’s some sort of collector, has a Bentley from around the same period.”

“Cop with a Bentley?”

“That was my reaction, too. The guy I was just talking to- sergeant at the San Gabriel chippy station- is a buddy of the first guy. The call came in to him, personally- he’s also a motorhead, collects Corvettes. Lots of cops are into wheels- they work extra jobs to pay for their toys. Anyway, he informs me that some of the old Bentleys aren’t that expensive. Twenty grand or so, cheaper if you buy a wreck and fix it up yourself. Rolls from the same year cost more ’cause they’re rarer- only a few hundred of those Silver Dawns were made. That’s why the first guy noticed it.”

“Meaning it’s probably hers.”

“Probably. But not definitely. The guy who saw it thought it was black over gray, but he couldn’t be sure- it might have been all black or dark gray over light gray. We’re talking a sixty-mile-an-hour zip-by.”

“How many old Rolls would there be driving around, that time, that place?”

“More than you might imagine. Apparently, a hell of a lot of them ended up in L.A. back when the dollar was worth something. And there are plenty of collectors concentrated in the Pasadena-San Labrador area. But yeah, I’d say we’ve got a ninety-percent-plus chance it was her.”

“East on the 210,” I said, picturing the wide-open highway. “Where would she be heading?”

“Anywhere, but she’d have had to make a decision fairly soon- the freeway ends around fifteen miles from there, just short of La Verne. North is Angeles Crest and I don’t see her as the type to rough it. South, she could have caught any number of other freeways- the 57 going straight south. Or 10, in either direction, which would take her anywhere from the beach to Vegas. Or she could have continued on surface streets up into the foothills, checked out the sights at Rancho Cucamonga- what the hell is out there, anyway?”

“I don’t know. But my guess is she’d probably stay near civilization.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Her type of civilization. I’m thinking Newport Beach, Laguna, La Jolla, Pauma, Santa Fe Springs. Still doesn’t narrow it much. Or maybe she turned around and headed for her own place in Malibu.”

“Ramp called there twice and she didn’t answer.”

“What if she wasn’t in the mood to pick up the phone?”

“Why would she go in one direction, then reverse herself?”

“Let’s say the whole thing started out impulsively. She’s just driving, for the hell of it. Gets on the freeway, gets swept along- going east by chance. Maybe it’s just a matter of it being the first on-ramp she sees. When the freeway ends she decides upon a specific destination. Closest thing to home: home number two. Or let’s say she was heading east intentionally. That means Route 10 and a whole bunch of other possibilities: San Berdoo, Palm Springs, Vegas. And beyond. The great beyond, Alex- she could drive all the way to Maine, if the car held up. If it didn’t, with her dough she could’ve ditched it, gotten another one fast. All you need to chew up the open road is time and money, and neither of those is her problem.”

“An agoraphobic doing the scenic route?”

“You said yourself she was in the process of getting cured. Maybe the freeway helped it along- all that blacktop, no stoplights. It can make you feel powerful. Make you wanna forget about the rules. That’s why people move out here in the first place, isn’t it?”

I thought about that. Thought of my first time on the open road, heading west for college at sixteen. The first time I’d driven over the Rockies, seeing the desert at night, thrilled and terrified. My first view of the dirt-brown haze looming over the L.A. basin, heavy and threatening but incapable of dimming the gilded promise of the city at twilight.

“Guess so,” I said.

He came around from behind the desk.

I said, “What now?”

“Deliver the news, then get the bulletin expanded- it’s better than even money she’s out of the county by now.”

“Or the car is.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Meaning what?”

“It is possible that something happened to her, isn’t it? That someone else is behind the wheel.”

“Anything’s possible, Alex. But if you were a bad guy, would that be the car you’d rip off?”

“Who was it told me long ago it’s only the stupid ones you catch?”

“You wanna think foul play, fine. At this point I’d have to see something ugly to consider it anything more than an adult runaway. And not one that’s likely to turn me into a hero.”

“What do you mean?”

“Runaways are the hardest m.p.’s to locate under any circumstances. Rich ones are the worst of the worst. Because the rich get to make their own rules. Buying for cash, avoiding jobs, credit unions- all the stuff that leaves a paper trail. What just happened with Ramp and the kid is a perfect example. Your average husband would be a hell of a lot more in touch with his wife’s credit cards and social security number. Your average couple shares. These people live separately- at least where money’s concerned. The rich know the power of the buck- they rope their funds off and protect them like buried treasure.”

“Separate bank accounts and separate bedrooms,” I said.

“Real intimate, huh? He doesn’t seem to know her. Wonder why she married him in the first place- the kid has a point.”

“Maybe she liked his mustache.”

He gave a short, sad smile and walked to the door. Looking back at the windowless room, he said, “Designed for concentration. I couldn’t spend too much time here without going stir-crazy.”

I thought of another windowless room, said, “Speaking of interior design, when I was over at the Gabney Clinic, I was struck by the similarity between Ursula Gabney’s office decor and the way Gina furnished that sitting room upstairs. Exact same color scheme, same style of furniture. And the only art in Ursula’s office was a Cassatt lithograph. Mother and child.”

“So what’s it mean, Doctor?”

“I don’t know exactly, but if the print was a gift, it was a hell of a generous one. The last time I checked an auction catalogue, Cassatt prints in good shape were pricey.”

“How pricey?”

“Twenty to sixty grand for black-and-white. A color one would go for more.”

“The doctor’s print is a color one, too?”

I nodded. “Very similar to Gina’s.”

“Sixty grand plus,” he said. “What’s the current wisdom on therapists accepting gifts?”

“It’s not illegal but it’s generally considered unethical.”

“You think there’s some kind of Svengali thing going on?”

“Maybe nothing that ominous,” I said. “Just overinvolvement- possessiveness. Ursula seems resentful of Melissa- the way one sibling might resent another. Almost as if she wants Gina all to herself. Melissa sensed it. On the other hand, maybe it’s just professional pride. The treatment’s been intensive. She’s brought Gina a long way- changed her life.”

“Changed her furniture, too.”

I shrugged. “Maybe I’m overinterpreting. Or seeing it backwards. Patients influence therapists, too. It’s called countertransference. Ursula could have bought her Cassatt because she saw Gina’s and liked it. With the fees the clinic charges, she could sure afford it.”

“Big bucks setup?”

“Megabucks. When both Gabneys work, they bill five hundred an hour per patient. Three for his time, two for hers.”

“Didn’t she ever hear of equal pay for equal work?”

“Her work’s more than equal- my impression is she does most of the actual therapy while he sits back and plays mentor.”

He clucked his tongue. “She’s not doing too bad as a mentee, is she? Five hundred.” He shook his head. “Sweet deal. Get a handful of rich folk in serious psychic pain and you wouldn’t need much else to fuel the gravy train.”

He took a step, paused. “You think this Ursula’s holding back?”

“Holding back what?”

“Knowledge of the whole thing. If they were as close as you’re suggesting, Gina could have let her in on her plans for the great escape. Maybe old Ursula even thought getting away would be good for her- therapeutic. Hell, maybe she even helped plan it- Gina disappeared on the way to the clinic.”

“Anything’s possible,” I said. “But I doubt it. She seemed genuinely upset by the disappearance.”

“What about the other one- the husband?”

“He mouthed the right words but didn’t come across too stressed. He claims he doesn’t worry. Trained himself not to.”

“Doctor heal thyself, huh? Or could be he’s just not as good an actor as his wife.”

“The three of them in cahoots?” I said. “Thought you didn’t like conspiracy theories.”

“I like what fits- not that any of it does at this point. We’re just head-tripping.”

“There are two other women in Gina’s group,” I said. “If she did plan to run away, she might have mentioned it to them. When I suggested to Ursula that they be interviewed, she got really defensive: told me Gina didn’t socialize with them- they couldn’t be any help. If she is hiding something, that could have been stonewalling.”

He gave a small smile. “Stonewalling? I thought you guys called it confidentiality?”

I felt myself go hot.

He patted my shoulder. “Now, now, what’s a little reality between friends? Speaking of which, I’d better deliver the news to my clients.”

***

We found Ramp sitting and drinking in the rear room with the painted beams. The drapes were drawn across the French doors and he was staring off into space, eyes half-closed. His face had taken on a ruddy glow and his shirt was wilting around the edges. When we came in he said, “Gentlemen?” in a hearty, greeter’s voice.

Milo asked him to get Melissa and he called her room, using an intercom on the phone. When she didn’t answer, he tried several other rooms without success, then looked up helplessly.

Milo said, “I’ll catch her later,” and told him about the car being sighted.

“The 210,” said Ramp. “Where would she be going?”

“Can you think of anything?”

“Me? No, of course not. None of this makes any sense to- Why would she be driving the freeway? She just started driving, period. This is just crazy.”

Milo said, “It would be a good idea to have that bulletin expanded statewide.”

“Of course. Go ahead, do it.”

“It’s got to come from a police agency. Your local cops have probably been informed of the sighting by now, may have requested it already. If you want, I can call to confirm.”

“Please,” said Ramp. He got up and walked around the room. A shirttail had come loose in front. It was monogrammed with a red DNR.

“Driving the freeway,” he said. “That’s nuts. They’re sure it was her?”

“No,” said Milo. “The only thing they’re sure of is that it was a car just like hers.”

“So it had to be her. How many damned Silver Dawns could there be?”

He looked down, tucked in his shirt hastily.

Milo said, “The next step would be to call airline companies, then get to the bank tomorrow morning and take a look at her financial records.”

Ramp stared at him, groped like a blind man along the edge of a nearby armchair, and lowered himself into it, still staring. “What you said at the beginning- about this being… about her running away. You think that for certain now, don’t you?”

“I don’t think anything yet,” Milo said with a gentleness that surprised me and raised Ramp’s head a couple of inches higher. “I’m taking it step by step- doing the things that need doing.”

A door slammed somewhere in the house.

Ramp bounded up and left the room, returning a few moments later trailing Melissa.

She had on a khaki safari vest over her shirt, and boots encrusted with mud and grass.

“I had Sabino’s boys check the grounds,” she said. “Just in case.” A brief glance at Ramp. “What’s going on?”

Milo repeated what he’d learned.

“The freeway,” said Melissa. One of her hands found the other and kneaded.

Ramp said, “It doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

She ignored him, put her hands on her hips, and faced Milo. “Okay, at least she’s all right. What next?”

Milo said, “Phone work till morning. Then I head over to the bank.”

“Why wait till morning? I’ll call Anger right now and tell him to get down here. It’s the least he can do- all the business this family’s given him.”

“Okay. Tell him I’ll need to go over your mother’s records.”

“Wait here. I’ll go call him right now.”

She left the room.

Milo said, “Yes, ma’am.”

18

She came back with a scrap of paper and handed it to Milo. “He’ll meet you there- here’s the address. I had to tell him what it was about, let him know I expected him to keep it to himself. What should I do while you’re gone?”

“Call airlines,” said Milo. “See if anyone bought a ticket to anywhere using your mom’s name. Say you’re her daughter and it’s an emergency. If that doesn’t work, embellish it- someone’s sick, you really need to know for medical reasons. Check departures from LAX, Burbank, Ontario, John Wayne, and Lindbergh. If you want to be really thorough, check under your mom’s maiden name, too. I’ll only come back here if something profound happens at the bank. Here’s my number at home.”

Scrawling on the back of the paper she’d just handed him, he tore off half and gave it to her.

“Call me if you learn anything,” she said. “Even if it seems unimportant.”

“Will do,” said Milo. Turning to Ramp, he said, “Hang in there.”

Ramp remained in his chair and gave a dull nod.

I said to Melissa, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No,” she said. “No, thanks. I don’t really feel like talking. I want to do something- no offense, okay?”

“No offense.”

“I’ll call you if I need you,” she said.

“No problem.”

“Sayonara,” said Milo, heading for the door.

I said, “I’ll walk out with you.”

***

“If you insist,” he said, coasting down the driveway. “But if I had a chance at some shuteye, I’d grab it.”

He’d brought Rick’s white Porsche 928. A portable scanner had been mounted on the dash since the last time I’d seen the car. He had the volume on low and the machine emitted a steady stream of mumbles.

“Hoo hah,” I said, tapping the box.

“Christmas gift.”

“From whom?”

“From me to me,” he said, accelerating. The Porsche hummed in agreement. “I still think you should go to sleep. Ramp’s already looking wilted and the kid’s running on adrenaline. Sooner or later you’re gonna be back here doing your thing.”

“Not tired,” I said.

“Too keyed up?”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’ll hit you tomorrow. Just in time for a panic call.”

“No doubt.”

He chuckled and gunned the engine.

The gates to the property were open. He turned left on Sussex Knoll, then left again. Giving the Porsche’s wheel a rightward turn, he oversteered a bit and had to straighten before turning onto Cathcart Boulevard. The businesses along the commercial strip were all dark. The streetlights cast an opaline light that expired before it reached the grassy median.

“Yeah, there it is, all lit up,” he said, pointing across the street to a floodlit one-story Greek Revival building. White limestone. Boxwood hedges, small lawn with a flagpole. FIRST FIDUCIARY TRUST BANK, FDIC in gold letters over the door.

I said, “Doesn’t look big enough to store cookie-sale proceeds.”

“Quality, not quantity, remember?”

He pulled up in front of the bank. To the right was a twenty space parking lot fronted by twin iron posts and a chain that had been lowered to the ground. A black Mercedes sedan sat alone in the first spot on the left side. As we got out of the Porsche, the black car’s door opened.

A man exited, closed the door, and stood there, one hand on the roof of the car.

Milo said, “I’m Sturgis.”

The man came forward into the streetlight. He had on a gray gabardine sack suit, white shirt, yellow tie with blue dots. Matching handkerchief in his breast pocket, black wingtips on his feet. Quick midnight dresser.

He said, “Glenn Anger, Mr. Sturgis. I hope Mrs. Ramp’s in no danger.”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

“Come this way.” Pointing toward the bank’s front door. “The security system’s been disarmed but there are still these to contend with.”

Pointing to a quartet of deadbolt locks arranged in a square around the doorknob. He pulled out a ring crammed with keys, fingered one, inserted it in the upper right-hand lock, turned, and waited until a click had sounded before pulling it out. Working quickly and efficiently. I thought of a professional safecracker.

I took a good look at him. Six feet, 160, gray crewcut, long face that would probably show tan in the daylight. Nub of nose, skimpy mouth, diminutive close-set ears. As if he’d purchased his features on sale and had settled for one size too small. Thick, dark eyebrows made his pale eyes look even tinier than they were. His age was somewhere between forty-five and fifty-five. If he’d been roused from sleep, he’d made a good recovery.

Before inserting the fourth key, he stopped and looked up and down the deserted street. Then at us.

Milo’s return look communicated nothing.

Anger turned the key, pushed the door open an inch. “I’m very concerned about Mrs. Ramp. Melissa made it sound quite serious.”

Milo gave a noncommittal nod.

Anger said, “What exactly is it you think I can do for you?” Then he looked at me.

Milo said, “This is Alex Delaware.” As if that settled it. “The first thing you can do is get me the numbers on her credit cards and her checking accounts. The second is you can educate me about her general financial situation.”

“Educate you,” said Anger, his hand still on the knob.

“Answer a few questions.”

Anger moved his lower jaw back and forth. Curving his arm around the jamb, he reached in and turned on some lights.

Inside the bank was polished cherry wood, royal-blue carpeting, brass fixtures, and a ceiling with a relief of a bald eagle at the apex. Three teller’s stations and a door marked SAFE DEPOSIT took up one side; three desk-and-chair sets filled the other. In the center of the room was a service kiosk.

The place smelled of lemon wax and ammonia and money so old it had begun to grow mold. Seeing it empty made me feel like a burglar.

Anger pointed forward and took us to a door at the rear that said W. GLENN ANGER, CHAIRMAN AND PRESIDENT over a seal that looked awfully similar to the one Ronald Reagan had just stopped using.

Two locks on this one.

Anger opened them and said, “Come on in.”

His office was small and cool and smelled like a new car. It was furnished with a squat desk- bare except for a gold Cross pen and a black-shaded lamp- and two brown tweed chairs with a low square table between them. Several leather-bound books sat on the table. To the right of the desk was a personal computer on a wheeled stand. Family photos filled the rear wall, each featuring the same brood: blond wife resembling Doris Day after six months of overeating, four blond boys, two beautifully groomed golden retrievers, and a grumpy-looking Siamese cat.

The other walls were taken up by a pair of Stanford diplomas, a collection of Norman Rockwell plates, a framed replica of the Declaration of Independence, and a ceiling-high rack of athletic trophies. Golf, squash, swimming, baseball, track. Awards dating back twenty years and inscribed to Warren Glenn Anger. More recent ones made out to Warren Glenn Anger, Jr., and Eric James Anger. I wondered about the two boys who hadn’t brought home any gold-plate and tried to pick them in the photos but couldn’t. All four were smiling.

Anger took a seat behind the desk, shot his cuffs, and looked at his watch. Dark curly hair with red tips sprouted along the tops of his hands.

Milo and I sat in the tweed chairs. I looked down at the table. The leather-bound books were membership directories- rosters of three private clubs still battling the city over admission of women and minorities.

“You’re a private detective?” said Anger.

“That’s right.”

“What kind of education are you after?”

Milo took out his pad. “Mrs. Ramp’s net worth for starts. How her assets are divided. Any significant withdrawals recently.”

Anger’s eyebrow dipped at the center. “Why exactly do you need all this, Mr. Sturgis?”

“I’ve been hired to hunt for Mrs. Ramp. A good hunter gets to know his quarry.”

Anger frowned.

Milo said, “Her banking patterns might tell me something about her intentions.”

“Intentions in terms of what?”

“A pattern of unusually large withdrawals might suggest she was planning to take a trip.”

Anger gave several very small nods. “I see. Well, that hasn’t been the case. And her net worth? What would that tell you?”

“I need to know what’s at stake.”

“At stake in terms of what?”

“In terms of how long she can stay out of sight- if her disappearance is voluntary.”

“Are you suggesting-”

“In terms of who stands to inherit, if it isn’t.”

Anger’s jaw moved back and forth. “That sounds ominous.”

“Not really. I just need to define my parameters.”

“I see. And what do you think’s happened to her, Mr. Sturgis?”

“I don’t have enough information to think anything. That’s why I’m here.”

Anger tilted back in his chair, rolled the bottom of his tie upward, then let it unfurl.

“I’m really concerned for her welfare, Mr. Sturgis. I’m sure you’re aware of her problem- the fears. The thought of her out there by herself…” Anger shook his head.

“We’re all concerned,” said Milo. “So why don’t we get to work?”

Anger swiveled his chair to one side, lowered it, and faced center again. “The problem is that a bank needs to maintain certain levels of-”

“I know what a bank needs to do, and I’m sure you do it really well. But there’s a lady out there whose family wants her found a.s.a.p. So why don’t we cut to the chase?”

Anger didn’t move. But he looked as if he’d slammed his finger in a car door and was trying to tough it out.

“Who, exactly, is your client of record, Mr. Sturgis?”

“Both Mr. Ramp and Ms. Dickinson.”

“I haven’t heard from Don on this.”

“He’s a bit stressed right now, trying to get some rest, but feel free to call him.”

“Stressed?” said Anger.

“Concerned for his wife’s welfare. The longer she’s gone, the greater the stress. With luck the whole thing will resolve itself, and the family will be extremely grateful to those who helped them in their time of need. People tend to remember that kind of thing.”

“Yes, of course. But that’s part of my dilemma. Having the matter resolve itself only to have made Mrs. Ramp’s finances needlessly public without proper legal justification. Because only Mrs. Ramp has the legal justification to request release of that information.”

“You’ve got a point,” said Milo. “If you want we’ll walk out of here and record the fact that you opted not to cooperate.”

“No,” said Anger. “That won’t be necessary. Melissa has reached her majority- if barely. In light of the… situation, I suppose it’s appropriate for her to make these types of family decisions in her mother’s absence.”

“What situation’s that?”

“She’s her mother’s sole heir.”

“Ramp gets nothing?”

“Just a small sum.”

“How small?”

“Fifty thousand dollars. Let me qualify that by saying those are the facts as I know them today. The family attorneys are Wresting, Douse, and Cosner downtown. They may have drafted new papers, though I doubt it. Generally I’m kept well informed of any changes- we do the family’s accounting, receive copies of all documents.”

“Give me those lawyers’ names again,” said Milo, pen poised.

“Wresting. Douse. And Cosner. They’re a fine old firm- Jim Douse’s great-uncle was J. Harmon Douse, the California Supreme Court justice.”

“Who’s Mrs. Ramp’s personal lawyer?”

“Jim Junior- Jim Douse’s son. James Madison Douse, Junior.”

Milo copied it down. “Got his number handy?”

Anger recited seven numbers.

“Okay,” said Milo. “The fifty thousand that goes to Ramp- that the result of a prenuptial agreement?”

Anger nodded. “The agreement states- to the best of my recollection- that Don forfeits claim to any part of Gina’s estate beyond a single cash payment of fifty thousand dollars. Very simple- shortest one I’ve ever seen.”

“Whose idea was it?”

“Arthur Dickinson’s essentially- Gina’s first husband.”

“Voice from the grave?”

Anger shifted in his chair and gave a look of distaste. “Arthur wanted Gina well taken care of. He was acutely aware of the difference in their ages. And her fragility. He specified in his will that no subsequent husband be eligible to inherit.”

“Is that legal?”

“You’d have to consult an attorney on that, Mr. Sturgis. Don certainly showed no desire to challenge it. Then, or since. I was present when the agreement was signed. Notarized it personally. Don was totally amenable. More than that- enthusiastic. Stated his willingness to forgo even the fifty thousand. It was Gina who insisted on sticking to the letter of Arthur’s will.”

“Why’s that?”

“The man is her husband.”

“Then why didn’t she try to give him more?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Sturgis. You’d have to ask-” Self-conscious smile. “Yes, well, I can only guess, but I suppose she was a bit embarrassed- this was a week before the wedding. Most people don’t like dealing with financial matters at a time like that. Don reassured her it was irrelevant to him.”

“Sounds like he didn’t marry her for her money.”

Anger gave a cold look. “Apparently not, Mr. Sturgis.”

“Any idea why he did marry her?”

“I assume he loved her, Mr. Sturgis.”

“They pretty happy together, far as you know?”

Anger sat back and folded his hands across his chest. “Investigating your own client, Mr. Sturgis?”

“Trying to fill in the picture.”

“Art was never my strong suit, Mr. Sturgis.”

Milo looked at the trophies and said, “Would it help if I phrased it in sports terms?”

“Not one bit, I’m afraid.”

Milo smiled and scribbled. “Okay, back to basics. Melissa’s the sole heir.”

“That’s correct.”

“Who inherits the estate if Melissa dies?”

“I believe her mother does, but we’re really getting out of my field of expertise.”

“Okay, let’s move back into it. What’s inherited? How big of an estate are we talking about?”

Anger hesitated. A banker’s prudishness. Then: “About forty million. Give or take. All of it in highly conservative investments.”

“Such as?”

“State of California tax-free municipal bonds rated double-A or above, blue-chip stocks and corporate bonds, treasury bills, some holdings in the secondary and tertiary mortgage markets. Nothing speculative.”

“How much yearly income does she get from all that?”

“Three and a half to five million, depending on yields.”

“All interest?”

Anger nodded. Talking figures had drawn him forward and relaxed his posture. “There’s nothing else coming in. Arthur did some architecture and development early on, but most of what he accumulated was the result of royalties on the Dickinson strut- it’s a process he invented, something to do with strengthening metal. He sold all rights to it just before he died, which is just as well- there’ve been newer techniques that have superseded it.”

“Why’d he sell?”

“He’d just retired, wanted to devote all his time to Gina- to her medical problems. You’re aware of her history- the attack?”

Milo nodded. “Any idea why she was attacked?”

That startled Anger. “I was at college when it happened- read about it in the papers.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

Anger said, “What exactly was your question?”

“The motive behind the attack.”

“I have no idea.”

“Any local theories you’re aware of?”

“I don’t engage in gossip.”

“I’m sure you don’t, Mr. Anger, but if you did, is there something you would have heard?”

“Mr. Sturgis,” said Anger, “you need to understand that Gina’s been out of circulation for a long time. She’s not a topic of local gossip.”

“What about at the time of the attack? Or shortly after, when she moved to San Labrador. Any gossip then?”

“From what I recall,” said Anger, “the consensus was that he was out of his mind- the maniac who did it. Does a madman need a motive?”

“Guess not.” Milo scanned his notes. “Those highly conservative investments you mentioned. They also Dickinson’s idea?”

“Absolutely. The rules of investment are spelled out in the will. Arthur was a very cautious man- collecting art was his only extravagance. He would have bought his clothes off the rack if he could.”

Milo said, “Think he was too conservative?”

“One doesn’t judge,” said Anger. “With what he’d put together from the strut royalties, he could have invested in real estate and parlayed it into a really sizable estate- two or three hundred million. But he insisted on security, no risks, and we did as told. Continue to do so.”

“You’ve been his banker since the beginning?”

“Fiduciary has. My father founded the bank. He worked directly with Arthur.”

Anger’s face creased. Sharing credit with reluctance. No portraits of The Founder in here. None out in the main room of the bank, either.

None of Arthur Dickinson in the house he’d built. I wondered why.

Milo said, “You pay all her bills?”

“Everything except small cash purchases- minor household expenditures.”

“How much do you pay out each month?”

“One moment,” said Anger, swiveling to face the computer. He turned on the machine, waited until it had booted up and beeped a welcome, then hunted and pecked, waited, typed some more, and sat forward as the screen was filled with letters.

“Here we go- last month’s bills totaled thirty-two thousand two hundred fifty-eight and thirty-nine cents. The month before that, a little over thirty- that’s about typical.”

Milo got up, walked behind the desk, and looked at the screen. Anger began to shield it with his hand, protecting his data like a Goody Two-Shoes kid guarding an exam. But Milo was looming over him, already copying, and the banker let his hand drop.

“As you can see,” he said, “the family lives comparatively simply. Most of the budget goes to cover staff salaries, basic maintenance on the house, insurance premiums.”

“No mortgages?”

“None. Arthur bought the beach house for cash and lived there while he built the main house.”

“What about taxes?”

“They’re paid out of a separate account. If you insist I’ll call up the file, but you’ll learn nothing from it.”

“Humor me,” said Milo.

Anger rubbed his jaw and typed a line. The computer made digestive noises. He rubbed his jaw again and I noticed that the skin along his mandible was slightly irritated. He’d shaved before coming over.

“Here,” he said as the screen flashed amber. “Last year’s federal and state taxes amounted to just under a million dollars.”

“That leaves about two-and-a-half to four million to play with.”

“Approximately.”

“Where does it go?”

“We reinvest it.”

“Stocks and bonds?”

Anger nodded.

“Does Mrs. Ramp take any cash out for herself?”

“Her personal allowance is ten thousand dollars per month.”

“Allowance?”

“Arthur set it up that way.”

“Is she allowed to take more?”

“The money’s hers, Mr. Sturgis. She can take whatever she wants.”

“Does she?”

“Does she what?”

“Take more than ten.”

“No.”

“What about Melissa’s expenses?”

“Those are covered by a separate trust fund.”

“So we