basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really
capable of change? The mistakes other people make are usually
patently obvious. Our own are tougher to recognize. In most cases,
our path through life reflects a fundamental truth about who we are
now and who we've been since birth. We're optimists or pessimists,
joyful or depressed, gullible or cynical, inclined to seek
adventure or to avoid all risks. Therapy might strengthen our
assets or offset our liabilities, but in the main we do what we do
because we've always done it that way, even when the outcome is
bad...perhaps especially when the outcome is bad.
This is a story about romance-love gone right, love gone wrong, and
matters somewhere in between.
I left downtown Santa Teresa that day at 1:15 and headed for
Montebello, a short ten miles south. The weather report had
promised highs in the seventies. Morning cloudiness had given way
to sunshine, a welcomed respite from the overcast that typically
mars our June and July. I'd eaten lunch at my desk, feasting on an
olive-and-pimiento-cheese sandwich on wheat bread, cut in quarters,
my third-favorite sandwich in the whole wide world. So what was the
problem? I had none. Life was great.
In committing the matter to paper, I can see now what should have
been apparent from the first, but events seemed to unfold at such a
routine pace that I was caught, metaphorically speaking, asleep at
the wheel. I'm a private detective, female, age thirty-seven,
working in the small Southern California town of Santa Teresa. My
jobs are varied, not always lucrative, but sufficient to keep me
housed and fed and ahead of my bills. I do employee background
checks. I track down missing persons or locate heirs entitled to
monies in the settlement of an estate. On occasion, I investigate
claims involving arson, fraud, or wrongful death.
In my personal life, I've been married and divorced twice, and
subsequent relationships have usually come to grief. The older I
get, the less I seem to understand men, and because of that I tend
to shy away from them. Granted, I have no sex life to speak of, but
at least I'm not plagued by unwanted pregnancies or sexually
transmitted diseases. I've learned the hard way that love and work
are a questionable mix.
I was driving on a stretch of highway once known as the Montebello
Parkway, built in 1927 as the result of a fund-raising campaign
that made possible the creation of frontage roads and landscaped
center dividers still in evidence today. Because billboards and
commercial structures along the roadway were banned at the same
time, that section of the 101 is still attractive, except when it's
jammed with rush-hour traffic.
Montebello itself underwent a similar transformation in 1948, when
the Montebello Protective and Improvement Association successfully
petitioned to eliminate sidewalks, concrete curbs, advertising
signs, and anything else that might disrupt the rural atmosphere.
Montebello is known for its two-hundred-some-odd luxury estates,
many of them built by men who'd amassed their fortunes selling
common household goods, salt and flour being two.
I was on my way to meet Nord Lafferty, an elderly gentleman, whose
photograph appeared at intervals in the society column of the
Santa Teresa Dispatch. This was usually occasioned by his
making yet another sizable contribution to some charitable
foundation. Two buildings at UCST had been named for him, as had a
wing of Santa Teresa Hospital and a special collection of rare
books he'd donated to the public library. He'd called me two days
before and indicated he had "a modest undertaking" he wanted to
discuss. I was curious how he'd come by my name and even more
curious about the job itself. I've been a private investigator in
Santa Teresa for the past ten years, but my office is small and, as
a rule, I'm ignored by the wealthy, who seem to prefer doing
business through their attorneys in New York, Chicago, or
I took the St. Isadore off-ramp and turned north toward the
foothills that ran between Montebello and the Los Padres National
Forest. At one time, this area boasted grand old resort hotels,
citrus and avocado ranches, olive groves, a country store, and the
Montebello train depot, which serviced the Southern Pacific
Railroad. I'm forever reading up on local history, trying to
imagine the region as it was 125 years ago. Land was selling then
for seventy-five cents an acre. Montebello is still bucolic, but
much of the charm has been bulldozed away. What's been erected
instead-the condominiums, housing developments, and the big flashy
starter castles of the nouveau riche-is poor compensation for what
was lost or destroyed.
I turned right on West Glen and drove along the winding two-lane
road as far as Bella Sera Place. Bella Sera is lined with olive and
pepper trees, the narrow blacktop climbing gradually to a mesa that
affords a sweeping view of the coast. The pungent scent of the
ocean faded with my ascent, replaced by the smell of sage and the
bay laurel trees. The hillsides were thick with yarrow, wild
mustard, and California poppies. The afternoon sun had baked the
boulders to a golden turn, and a warm chuffing wind was beginning
to stir the dry grasses. The road wound upward through an alley of
live oaks that terminated at the entrance to the Lafferty estate.
The property was surrounded by a stone wall that was eight feet
high and posted with No Trespassing signs.
I slowed to an idle when I reached the wide iron gates. I leaned
out and pushed the call button on a mounted keypad. Belatedly I
spotted a camera mounted atop one of two stone pillars, its hollow
eye fixed on me. I must have passed inspection because the gates
swung open at a measured pace. I shifted gears and sailed through,
following the brick-paved drive for another quarter of a
Through a picket fence of pines, I caught glimpses of a gray stone
house. When the whole of the residence finally swept into view, I
let out a breath. Something of the past remained after all. Four
towering eucalyptus trees laid a dappled shade on the grass, and a
breeze pushed a series of cloud-shaped shadows across the red tile
roof. The two-story house, with matching one-story wings topped
with stone balustrades at each end, dominated my visual field. A
series of four arches shielded the entrance and provided a covered
porch on which wicker furniture had been arranged. I counted twelve
windows on the second floor, separated by paired eave brackets,
largely decorative, that appeared to support the roof.
I pulled onto a parking pad sufficient to accommodate ten cars and
left my pale blue VW hunched, cartoonlike, between a sleek Lincoln
Continental on one side and a full-size Mercedes on the other. I
didn't bother to lock up, operating on the assumption that the
electronic surveillance system was watching over both me and my
vehicle as I crossed to the front walk.
The lawns were wide and well tended, and the quiet was underlined
by the twittering of finches. I pressed the front bell, listening
to the hollow-sounding chimes inside clanging out two notes as
though by a hammer on iron. The ancient woman who came to the door
wore an old-fashioned black uniform with a white pinafore over it.
Her opaque stockings were the color of doll flesh, her crepe-soled
shoes emitting the faintest squeak as I followed her down the
marble-tiled hall. She hadn't asked my name, but perhaps I was the
only visitor expected that day. The corridor was paneled in oak,
the white plaster ceiling embossed with chevrons and
She showed me into the library, which was also paneled in oak. Drab
leather-bound books lined shelves that ran floor to ceiling, with a
brass rail and a rolling ladder allowing access to the upper
reaches. The room smelled of dry wood and paper mold. The inner
hearth in the stone fireplace was tall enough to stand in, and a
recent blaze had left a partially blackened oak log and the faint
stench of wood smoke. Mr. Lafferty was seated in one of a pair of
matching wing chairs.
I placed him in his eighties, an age I'd considered elderly once
upon a time. I've since come to realize how widely the aging
process varies. My landlord is eighty-seven, the baby of his
family, with siblings whose ages range as high as ninety-six. All
five of them are lively, intelligent, adventurous, competitive, and
given to good-natured squabbling among themselves. Mr. Lafferty, on
the other hand, looked as though he'd been old for a good twenty
years. He was inordinately thin, with knees as bony as a pair of
misplaced elbows. His once sharp features had at least been
softened by the passing years. Two small clear plastic tubes had
been placed discreetly in his nostrils, tethering him to a stout
green oxygen tank on a cart to his left. One side of his jaw was
sunken, and a savage red line running across his throat suggested
extensive surgery of some vicious sort.
He studied me with eyes as dark and shiny as dots of brown sealing
wax. "I appreciate your coming, Ms. Millhone. I'm Nord Lafferty,"
he said, holding out a hand that was knotted with veins. His voice
was hoarse, barely a whisper.
"Nice to meet you," I murmured, moving forward to shake hands with
him. His were pale, a tremor visible in his fingers, which were icy
to the touch.
He motioned to me. "You might want to pull that chair close. I've
had thyroid surgery a month ago and more recently some polyps
removed from my vocal cords. I've been left with this rasping noise
that passes as speech. Isn't painful, but it's irksome. I apologize
if I'm difficult to understand."
"So far, I'm not having any problem."
"Good. Would you like a cup of tea? I can have my housekeeper make
a pot, but I'm afraid you'll have to pour for yourself. These days,
her hands aren't any steadier than mine."
"Thanks, but I'm fine." I pulled the second wing chair closer and
took a seat. "When was this house built? It's really
"1893. A man named Mueller bought a six-hundred-forty-acre section
from the county of Santa Teresa. Of that, seventy acres remain.
House took six years to build and the story has it Mueller died the
day the workers finally set down their tools. Since then, the
occupants have fared poorly...except for me, knock on wood. I
bought the property in 1929, just after the crash. Fellow who owned
the place lost everything. Drove into town, climbed up to the clock
tower, and dived over the rail. Widow needed the cash and I stepped
in. I was criticized, of course. Folks claimed I took advantage,
but I'd loved the house from the minute I laid eyes on it. Someone
would have bought it. Better me than them. I had money for the
upkeep, which wasn't true of many folks back then."
"You were lucky."
"Indeed. Made my fortune in paper goods in case you're curious and
too polite to inquire."
I smiled. "Polite, I don't know about. I'm always curious."
"That's fortunate, I'd say, given the business you're in. I'm
assuming you're a busy woman so I'll get right to the point. Your
name was given to me by a friend of yours-fellow I met during this
recent hospital stay."
"Stacey Oliphant," I said, the name flashing immediately to mind.
I'd worked a case with Stacey, a retired Sheriff's Department
homicide detective, and my old pal Lieutenant Dolan, now retired
from the Santa Teresa Police Department. Stacey was battling
cancer, but the last I'd heard, he'd been given a reprieve.
Mr. Lafferty nodded. "He asked me to tell you he's doing well, by
the way. He checked in for a battery of tests, but all of them
turned out negative. As it happened, the two of us walked the halls
together in the afternoons, and I got chatting about my daughter,
I was already thinking skip trace, missing heir, possibly a
background check on a guy if Reba were romantically involved.
He went on. "I only have the one child and I suppose I've spoiled
her unmercifully, though that wasn't my intent. Her mother ran off
when she was just a little thing, this high. I was caught up in
business and left the day-to-day raising of her to a series of
nannies. She'd been a boy I could have sent her off to boarding
school the way my parents did me, but I wanted her at home. In
retrospect, I see that might've been poor judgment on my part, but
it didn't seem so at the time." He paused and then gestured
impatiently toward the floor, as though chiding a dog for leaping
up on him. "No matter. It's too late for regrets. Pointless,
anyway. What's done is done." He looked at me sharply from under
his bony brow. "You probably wonder what I'm driving at."
I proffered a slight shrug, waiting to hear what he had to
"Reba's being paroled on July twentieth. That's next Monday
morning. I need someone to pick her up and bring her home. She'll
be staying with me until she's on her feet again."
"What facility?" I asked, hoping I didn't sound as startled as I
"California Institution for Women. Are you familiar with the
"It's down in Corona, couple of hundred miles south. I've never
actually been there, but I know where it is."
"Good. I'm hoping you can take time out of your schedule for the
"That sounds easy enough, but why me? I charge five hundred dollars
a day. You don't need a private detective to make a run like that.
Doesn't she have friends?"
"Not anyone I'd ask. Don't worry about the money. That's the least
of it. My daughter's difficult. Willful and rebellious. I want you
to see to it she keeps the appointment with her parole officer and
whatever else is required once she's been released. I'll pay you
your full rate even if you only work for a part of each day."
"What if she doesn't like the supervision?"
"It's not up to her. I've told her I'm hiring someone to assist her
and she's agreed. If she likes you, she'll be cooperative, at least
to a point."
"May I ask what she did?"
"Given the time you'll be spending in her company, you're entitled
to know. She was convicted of embezzling money from the company she
worked for. Alan Beckwith and Associates. He does property
management, real estate investment and development, things of that
type. Do you know the man?"
"I've seen his name in the paper."
Nord Lafferty shook his head. "I don't care for him myself. I've
known his wife's family for years. Tracy's a lovely girl. I can't
understand how she ended up with the likes of him. Alan Beckwith is
an upstart. He calls himself an entrepreneur, but I've never been
entirely clear what he does. Our paths have crossed in public on
numerous occasions and I can't say I'm impressed. Reba seems to
think the world of him. I will credit him for this-he spoke up in
her behalf before her sentencing. It was a generous gesture on his
part and one he didn't have to make."
"How long has she been at CIW?"
"She's served twenty-two months of a four-year sentence. She never
went to trial. At her arraignment-which I'm sorry to say I
missed-she claimed she was indigent, so the court appointed a
public defender to handle her case. After consultation with him,
she waived her right to a preliminary hearing and entered a plea of
"Just like that?"
"I'm afraid so."
"And her attorney agreed to it?"
"He argued strenuously against it, but Reba wouldn't listen."
"How much money are we talking?"
"Three hundred fifty thousand dollars over a two-year
"How'd they discover the theft?"
"During a routine audit. Reba was one of a handful of employees
with access to the accounts. Naturally, suspicion fell on her.
She's been in trouble before, but nothing of this magnitude."
I could feel a protest welling but I bit back my response.
He leaned forward. "You have something to say, feel free to say it.
Stacey tells me you're outspoken so please don't hesitate on my
account. It may save us a misunderstanding."
"I was just wondering why you didn't step in. A high-powered
attorney might have made all the difference."
He dropped his gaze to his hands. "I should have helped her...I
know that...but I'd been coming to her rescue for many, many
years...all her life, if you want to know the truth. At least
that's what I was being told by friends. They said she had to face
the consequences of her behavior or she was never going to learn.
They said I'd be enabling, that saving her was the worst possible
action under the circumstances."
"Who's this 'they' you're referring to?"
For the first time, he faltered. "I had a lady friend. Lucinda.
We'd been keeping company for years. She'd seen me intercede in
Reba's behalf on countless occasions. She persuaded me to put my
foot down and that's what I did."
"Frankly, I was shocked when Reba was sentenced to four years in
state prison. I had no idea the penalty would be so stiff. I
thought the judge would suspend sentence or agree to probation, as
the public defender suggested. At any rate, Lucinda and I
quarreled, bitterly I might add. I broke off the relationship and
severed my ties with her. She was much younger than I. In
hindsight, I realized she was angling for herself, hoping for
marriage. Reba disliked her intensely. Lucinda knew that, of
"What happened to the money?"
"Reba gambled it away. She's always been attracted to card play.
Roulette, the slots. She loves to bet the ponies, but she has no
head for it."
"She's a problem gambler?"
"Her problem isn't the gambling, it's the losing," he remarked,
with only the weakest of smiles.
"What about drugs and alcohol?"
"I'd have to answer yes on both counts. She tends to be reckless.
She has a wild streak like her mother. I'm hoping this experience
in prison has taught her self-restraint. As for the job itself,
we'll play that by ear. We're talking two to three days, a week at
the most, until she's reestablished herself. Since your
responsibilities are limited, I won't be requiring a written
report. Submit an invoice and I'll pay your daily rate and all the
"That seems simple enough."
"One other item. If there's any suggestion that she's backsliding,
I want to be informed. Perhaps with sufficient warning, I can head
off disaster this time around."
"A tall order."
"I'm aware of that."
Briefly, I considered the proposition. Ordinarily I don't like
serving as a babysitter and potential tattletale, but in this case,
his concern didn't seem out of line. "What time will she be
Excerpted from R IS FOR RICOCHET © Copyright 2004 by Sue
Grafton. Reprinted with permission by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin
Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.