"My God, what's going on down there?" I asked Hy.
He peered through the Cessna's side window as I banked over
Touchstone, our property on the cliffs above the sea in Mendocino
County. "Hate to say it, but it looks like a party."
"Oh, hell, I never should've called the office from Reno."
It did indeed look like a party: tables dotted the terrace, their
brightly colored cloths fluttering in the sea breeze; smoke
billowed from the barbecue; a crowd of people stood on the
mole-humped excuse for a lawn, staring up and waving at the
"There's Mick," Hy said. "And Charlotte. And Ted."
"Probably the instigators." I banked again and began my approach to
our dirt landing strip along the bluff's top. "How on earth did
they organize this in just a few days?"
"Well, your people're nothing if not efficient."
"Yours, too." I pointed down at Gage Renshaw, one of Hy's partners
in the security firm of Renshaw and Kessell International. "He made
it up from La Jolla in time."
"Nice of him. And I see Hank, Anne-Marie, and Habiba. And Rae. But
all these people kind of put a damper on the rest of the
"Oh, Ripinsky, we've been honeymooning for years."
"That's a fact."
I concentrated on making a smooth landing, then taxied toward the
plane's tiedown, where my nephew Mick Savage, his live-in love,
Charlotte Keim, and several other friends had converged. When I
stepped down, I was smothered in one hug after another, while Mick
helped Hy attach the chains to the Cessna. The hugging and
exclaiming continued as we started toward the house, and then I
heard someone singing.
"Tough lady thought she couldn't be caught by the rhythm of the
Till she fell right hard for a flyin' man who had nothin left to
lose . . ."
The voice belonged to my former brother-in-law, country music star
Ricky Savage. The song, apparently, was one he'd written especially
for Hy and me.
"So did you get married in a wedding chapel?" Hank Zahn, my former
boss and closest male friend, asked.
"Plastic flowers and a rented veil?" This from his wife and law
partner, Anne-Marie Altman.
"Were there Elvis impersonators?" The dark eyes of their daughter,
Habiba Hamid, sparkled wickedly.
"You guys are thinking of Las Vegas," I told them. "We spent the
night in Reno, then drove to Carson City, the state capital,
applied for a license, and were married that afternoon by a judge.
It was nice. Private. Tasteful, even."
Hank and Anne-Marie nodded approval, but Habiba looked
disappointed. She was a teenager who probably would have delighted
in the image of Hy and me rocking-and-rolling down the aisle.
"What, no ring?" Ted Smalley, my office manager, demanded.
"Neither of us likes to wear rings. Besides, we feel married enough
"Nobody can feel too married," his partner, Neal Osborne, fingered
the gold band that matched Ted's. They'd exchanged them at a
ceremony at San Francisco City Hall, during the brief period when
the mayor had declared the clerk's office open for the issuance of
marriage licenses to gay couples.
"I guess not," I said. "And you two are a good example for all of
"Tell that to the governator."
"He'll be told, come next election. You're married in the eyes of
your friends, and someday you'll be married in the eyes of the
"Sure is nice to be working for an honest woman." Charlotte Keim,
my financial operative, punctuated the comment with a bawdy
My nephew Mick said, "I think that's a hint. She wants to fly off
to Reno like you did."
"Flatter yourself, already!" Charlotte elbowed him in the
"One of these days I just might weaken and ask you."
"One of these days I just might weaken and ask you."
I smiled and left the happy couple to their half-serious
"So, McCone, you gonna tame him down?" Gage Renshaw, one of Hy's
partners, smiled slyly at me, dark hair blowing in the wind off the
"No more than he's going to tame me down."
"Yeah, I guess that would take some doing."
Gage never discussed personal things with me. I glanced at the
champagne in his glass, wondering how many he'd had.
"In my experience," he added, "a man gets married, he gets
cautious, loses his edge. In our business, that makes for mistakes.
And mistakes can be fatal."
No, Gage wasn't drunk; he was trying to send a message.
"I hear you," I said, "but you're talking to the wrong
"Don't think so. We've got a situation coming up that's gonna
require all our resources. See that your man's ready for it."
Nice wedding gift, Gage.
Hours later, clouds had gathered on the horizon, orange and pink
and purple in the afterglow of the sunset. The others had retreated
from the clifftop platform to the house, presumably to raid the
dessert table, but Rae Kelleher and I remained behind to take in
what, to me, were the most spectacular moments of the sunsets here
on the Mendocino Coast. Rae --- my onetime assistant, close friend,
and near-relative, having married Ricky after his divorce from my
younger sister Charlene.
I said, "Nice song Ricky wrote. On short notice, too."
She laughed. "He wrote it a year ago. He's been waiting for the two
of you to get married before he performed it."
"Oh, and he really expected that would happen?"
"We all did --- except for you."
I sighed. Sometimes our friends and relatives know us better than
we know ourselves.
"It'll be on his next CD," she added.
"Our little piece of immortality."
"Well, we all want that, don't we?"
Did we? It seemed to me that right now I had everything I'd ever
wanted. Even if I hadn't realized how much I'd wanted it until Hy
turned the plane toward Reno a few days ago.
We sat silent for a moment. The surf boomed on the rocks in the
cove below, eating at the steep cliffs. What was it the geologist
who had inspected our land before we sited the house had said?
Something about it possibly sliding into the sea if we intended to
live there for more than a thousand years.
Right now I felt as if I could live forever.
Rae said, "What was it that tipped the scales in favor of
"It just seemed right. Hy's been wanting this for a long time, you
know. But he had a good first marriage, even if Julie was very sick
for years before she died. My history with men, on the other hand
"Right. No need to rehash that." Rae looked down at her
diamond-studded wedding ring. "Or to rehash my checkered
past. What a bunch of losers --- including me, for getting involved
with them. What did your mother say when you told her the
"Which one?" I had two: the adoptive mother who'd raised me and the
birth mother with whom I'd finally connected a couple of years
"Well, Ma carried on as if I'd announced I'd won the Nobel Peace
Prize; then she had me put Hy on the phone. To him she said,
'Congratulations on joining our family.' And then she laughed and
added, 'Well, considering the family, maybe congratulations aren't
"Oh my God. And Saskia?"
"More restrained. But she was pleased. She met Hy last summer when
she was in town for a bar association meeting, and they really hit
"You call Elwood?" Elwood Farmer, my birth father, an artist who
lived on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.
"Yes. He was . . . just Elwood."
"Meaning he didn't say much and now he's thinking over the deeper
meaning of it all."
"Must be complicated, having all those relatives. Sometimes I'm
glad I've got no family left."
"What d'you mean? You're a stepmother six times over."
"That's different." She paused. "Shar, I need to talk to you about
a potential case for the agency."
I felt a stirring of unease. Ricky had been a notorious womanizer
throughout his marriage to my sister. If that had started again,
and Rae wanted me to investigate, I couldn't possibly take it on.
Conflict of interest on too many levels.
"I'm asking for a friend of mine," she added. "It's something that
really means a lot to her, and it could be very lucrative for
I relaxed. "Tell me about it."
"Her name's Jennifer Aldin. She's a textile designer, works with a
lot of the high-society decorators in the city. I got to know her
through Ricky; her husband, Mark, is his financial manager."
"I thought Ricky managed his own money."
"No, Charlene always did that."
"Right." My younger sister hadn't finished high school because she
was pregnant with Mick, but years later she'd gotten her GED and
gone to college; now she possessed a PhD in finance and helped her
new husband, international businessman Vic Christiansen, run his
"Anyway," Rae went on, "after Ricky and Charlene split and he
established the new record label, he realized he was in over his
head. I've got no talent whatsoever with money --- you remember how
my charge cards were always maxed out --- so he went to Mark, who
has a lot of clients in the entertainment industry. Mark keeps
things on track, and makes us a small fortune from
As if they needed more. Ricky made millions yearly, and Rae's
career as a novelist was about to take off.
"So," I said, "Mark's wife is a friend of yours."
"Yes. At first it was one of those situations where the husbands
get together over dinner for business reasons and the wives're
supposed to make small talk. But neither Jen nor I is much good at
polite chitchat; when we loosened up and started talking about
things that really mattered, we discovered we had a lot in common.
One of those things being a horror of artificial social situations.
Now Mark and Ricky go sailing to talk business, and Jen and I do
whatever pleases us."
I realized that I didn't know all that much about Rae's everyday
life since she'd married and become a published author. We had
lunch occasionally, talked on the phone every couple of weeks, and
spent Christmas Eve together because that was when all six of Ricky
and Charlene's kids gathered at the Seacliff-district house he and
Rae shared. But I didn't really know how she spent her time, or who
her other friends were.
"What kinds of things do you and Jennifer do?" I asked.
"We take hikes." At my incredulous look, she grinned. "Yeah, I've
hiked some of the toughest trails on Mount Tam. No more collapsing
to rest every quarter mile."
"Better watch out --- soon you'll be running the Bay to
"I haven't reformed that much. Anyway, we also go antiquing,
and to galleries, visit museums, or run up to the wine country and
do some tasting."
"Sounds nice." And it made me feel wistful. I'd been so busy
managing the agency --- which was growing month by month --- that I
seldom saw most of my women friends. My male friends, too; I
couldn't remember when I'd last spent time with Hank.
Hell, it was a wonder I'd found the time to get married!
"Okay," I added, "now tell me what Jennifer wants
Rae nibbled on a fingernail, looking out to sea. "It's a long shot,
I think. Twenty-two years ago, when Jennifer was ten, her mother,
Laurel Greenwood, disappeared down in San Luis Obispo County. One
of those cases where it looks like the person's either disappeared
voluntarily or committed suicide, but everybody says, 'She never
would have done that; it must be foul play.' And in this case they
may be right. There was no trouble in the Greenwood marriage.
Laurel was content with her life, a good mother, as well as a
successful businesswoman, and very involved in her
"And no body was ever found."
"No trace of her. Afterward, Jen's father became very closed off,
didn't permit her or her sister to so much as mention their
mother's name. Seven months ago, when he was diagnosed with
pancreatic cancer, Jen tried to talk with him about her mother, but
he flat-out refused. He died two months later, and then Jen started
obsessing about the disappearance. Finally she looked up the
newspaper accounts of it. There was a big media flap for the first
few days, then nothing. Almost as if someone had put a lid on the
"This was handled by the SLO County Sheriff's Department?"
"She talk to the investigating officers?"
"The guy in charge has died. The deputy she spoke with wasn't very
interested in helping her. Can't blame him; it's a cold case, and
he's got better things to do with his time."
"So she came to you, since you used to be an investigator."
"Actually, no. Mark got worried about her obsessing. She was losing
weight, not sleeping or eating properly, not working well. So he
decided he'd bankroll a full-scale investigation into her mother's
disappearance, and asked Ricky if he thought your agency would be
right for the job. Of course, he said it would."
"A full-scale investigation into a cold case?"
"The works. Mark's willing to spend whatever it takes to give Jen
peace of mind."
"Sounds like he loves her a lot."
"Yeah, he does."
I asked, "So why didn't Jennifer Aldin approach me directly? Why
have you pave the way?"
"She only decided to go ahead with the investigation yesterday.
Last night, the four of us were having dinner, and when I mentioned
that Ricky and I were coming up here for the party, she asked me to
speak with you. The thing is, she wants you to handle the case
"Because you're the best there is."
"According to . . . ?"
"Ricky and me. The man on the street. Oh, hell, Shar, will you take
it on? Jen needs closure in order to get her life back on
I considered. Late last month I'd wrapped up a case that had been
very personal and had threatened my career, as well as the
existence of the agency. After having my attention taken away from
normal business affairs for two weeks, I'd been trying to make up
for lost time, but managing our heavy caseload and the attendant
paperwork threatened even now to overwhelm me. Still, Ted could
pick up some of the slack in the paperwork department, and I had a
couple of new operatives who were coming along fast. . . .
I was mentally shifting priorities and assignments as I said to
Rae, "Okay. I'll call Jennifer tomorrow, and maybe we can set
something up for later in the week."
"If I know her, she'll want to see you soonest."
"If so, I can fit her in on Tuesday afternoon. We're flying down
"What, so soon? You and Hy aren't taking any more time off?"
"Can't. He's due in La Jolla at RKI headquarters on Wednesday.
Business is booming --- their clients see terrorists behind every
tree --- and they're hiring so many people that they need to
restructure their training operations."
And they've got a situation coming up. One that will require all
their resources, according to Gage. I can't even ask Hy about it,
because he'd be furious at Gage for mentioning it to me. For
attempting to dictate the terms of our relationship. If RKI is in
trouble, the last thing they need is dissension among the
Rae said, "So marriage isn't going to change anything for you
"We don't expect it to."
She grinned. "Wait and see."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just wait and see."
Excerpted from VANISHING POINT: A Sharon McCone Mystery ©
Copyright 2011 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust. Reprinted with
permission by Mysterious Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group
USA. All rights reserved.