PHOEBE EASTMAN LIVED north of San Diego in a coastal town called La Jolla, a nice little upbeat beach community. The upper class had their houses while the upper middle class had some apartment complexes thrown in. We parked the car in front of just such a monoculture housing complex and I asked Ron what Phoebe did for a living.
“She is an artist,” Ron looked doubtfully at the neighborhood as if it didn’t match, which it didn’t. La Jolla was more expensive than San Diego, no place for the starving bohemian.
Ron went into the complex; followed the signposts and finally stepped up to a second floor apartment. He rang a bell and a blonde, brown-eyed California dream girl opened the door for us. She had puffed-up eyes and a reddish nose but was all the right sizes, from her hips, to her breasts and her smooth shimmering hair. She wore a straight blue cotton skirt and a striped blouse with a golden necklace visible through the opening at her neck.
Ron did a quick introduction and we sat down in a spacious living room that featured assorted modern minimalistic pictures. Lots of colors and bleeding patterns, abstraction and emotional expression. None revealed any mastership of the brush. We declined a soft drink. Phoebe fetched a box of tissues and the interview began.
“Thank you for seeing us, Miss Eastman,” Ron said.
“I still cannot believe what has happened,” Phoebe was sniffing in her tissue.
“When did you talk to your father for the last time?”
“Must have been last weekend. Friday or Saturday. We were discussing Thanksgiving prep stuff. Who was supposed to buy what, you know.” Nothing to thank for this year, I was thinking, feeling with her.
“You said yesterday that your mother died a few years ago.”
Just a sniff and nod in return.
“Did your father talk to you about his work?”
“Oh yes, now and then. Not that it was a very exciting job. He mostly just discusses the highlights and mentions when something special occurs. Like an attempted break-in or things he stumbled on during his rounds, like lovers necking in the backyard lot.”
“You were aware of the current assignment he had at the Altward Gallery?”
“Of course, me being an artist and all.” She waved around with her arm, probably to indicate that she had created the mono-colored canvases. “He was around great art all night. He had the round for a few months now and we even went there once or twice during the daytime. Dad introduced me to Mr. Altward.”
“Did your father mention anything out of the ordinary regarding the Altward Gallery?”
Phoebe shook her head and sniveled into her tissue again.
“No recent attempts, no suspicious cars in the parking lot or nightly rattling doors, no phone calls or hang-ups?”
“Were you aware that the showroom on the second floor was a giant safe?”
Phoebe looked at Ron as if he had put her into the suspect basket. “Of course, I think everyone who ever walked up the stairs noticed the heavy doors and the massive frames.”
“In his capacity as the responsible watchman, was your father able to get into the safe after hours?”
“As far as I know, he couldn’t open the door by himself. Someone in the security company call center could do some emergency overrides but only then, the door would open. The whole thing is computer controlled and can be remotely checked at any time.”
“So your father alone could never have entered the safe at night without coordinating it with the central security or one of the gallery owners?”
“That was my understanding, yes.”
“Did your father mention anything out of the ordinary going on at the Altward Gallery? More files than usual on Mr. Altward’s desk, the assistant burning midnight oil, false alarms, lights flickering at night, anything?”
“I don’t know what exactly you want to hear. I mean there was always something going on. My dad always brought home some tidbits about new artwork, photos lying around or pinned on the walls. He was very much interested in art; I got the bug from him.”
“These are your paintings?” I asked.
She nodded, seemed glad to leave the subject of her dead father. “Some of my early works. I am in a more figurative phase right now; most of the new works are in my loft downtown.” Classy, two places in La Jolla, apartment and loft in S.D.
“You have representation?”
She gave a sad smile. “I had for a while, but it had to close down. The art business is not so good. I am negotiating with two galleries now. You like the works?” She turned around and spread out an arm toward the paintings behind her. The turn offered a better look at the golden necklace she wore, a small piece of stunning beauty.
“Yeah, I do,” I lied, conjuring the first most abstract painters from the back of my memory. “I like Gottlieb, Rothko and the lot. I am an artist myself, doing jewelry.”
We chatted for a few minutes about the superficial aspects of our creative jobs, Ron patiently sitting there.
Phoebe eventually glanced at him and then at me again and said, “Excuse me, Detective, we got carried away here.”
Ron smiled. “No problem, Miss Eastman. It took your mind off your father for a moment. Miss Moonstone is hired especially for the case to support me in the artistic aspects of the theft.”
“Oh yes, something was stolen, too.” Phoebe remembered, looking at me.
“An eighteenth century set of jewelry by a craftsman called Patrice Montenhaute,” I explained.
“Never heard of her.” Phoebe shrugged.
“Don’t worry about it, only the jewelry collectors’ scene knows and values him.”
“Can I do anything more for the lady and gentleman of the police?” Phoebe asked.
Ron stood up, I followed suit. “If you have any questions or remember anything, please call me or my partner Juanita Garcia anytime. You met her yesterday, you have our cards.”
We somberly shook hands and left Phoebe Eastman in her Thanksgiving misery.
“Can I buy you lunch?” Ron asked. “Least I can do for a highly valued consultant.”
“By the way, don’t you have funds for this?”
“Well, now that you ask, we may.” Ron scratched his sexy chin in embarrassment and put on a boyish charm face. Cute.
“Bring the paperwork if you want any more qualified answers.”
“And I thought I could save a little budget here.” Ron sighed. “But I had already wondered when you would ask.”
“Would have been suspicious if you hadn’t.”
“Really! Do you know the Crab Shack at La Jolla Cove?”
“I think I got my first real kiss on that parking lot, ages ago.” I remembered with dread.
“Today’s offer would include a portion of fries and unlimited Coke.”
“That’s exactly what I wished for after that kiss.”
The Crab Shack may have had crab dishes way back when there were still crabs to be found in the waters of South California, but nowadays, it specializes in everything but crab. It also serves some legendary cheeseburgers that only the stray tourist would order accidentally, but only once.
Ron and I parked the car, went over to the shack and ordered the fried fish of the day with fries, mushrooms and Coke. After we were served, we settled at one of the wooden camping table-seat combos planted unceremoniously on the parking lot tarmac and enjoyed the vista of a silver Pacific Ocean in the low midday sun. And the food.
“So, what do you think about Miss Phoebe Eastman?” Ron dipped a piece of fish into the sauce.
“Did you notice her necklace?” I asked.
“See, that’s why you hired me. The piece that Phoebe wore around her neck was spectacular.”
“Gold, wasn’t it?”
“Right, my first guess would have been Mexico or Aztec art. Very small, could have been a bird or a crouching animal, brushed gold, not the shiny stuff toward which we Americans usually gravitate. Some small colorful rubies and opals set into it. It hung on a simple black leather band.”
“From your description, it sounds like any other market stuff you buy over in Mexico.”
“Trust me, it wasn’t. That piece of hers was the definition of expensive understatement. Five to six figures worth. My instant valuation would have said five figure range. Fifty thousand dollars upwards.”
“So Miss Eastman likes it hot. She is successful with her work, just like you.”
“Do you see any expensive jewelry around my neck?”
“Actually, now that you mention it, you don’t wear any jewelry at all.”
“You haven’t seen me naked.” It slipped out as a flippant spontaneous remark, my ears turned beet-red instantly in regret.
Ron choked on his Coke and snorted so loudly into his cup that he had to pour the remains into the sand.
“Excuse me, that was too… ”
“It’s fine, you want to lighten the mood between us. I won’t ask again,” Ron caught himself and finally stopped laughing.
“Back to Phoebe. I can tell you with my full authority that her art earns her no money. It wouldn’t even if she evolved from that silly one-color-one-line concept that she had on her walls. Check the no-name artists on eBay selling similar stuff. Two hundred dollars, max.”
“So the talk about representation was a bluff?”
“No, maybe a friend helps her out, makes a better impression if you are able to say ‘Call my agent.’ Her previous gallery went bust. That says all for the economic value of her art.”
“Isn’t there one artist who can live off his art?”
“When you define ‘her art’ as the ultimate self fulfillment, the answer is zero percent.”
“So you are of the chosen few,” Ron mused.
“Forget it, in my trade we have to take care of the customers’ taste just as much as a car designer does. When you create commercial art, you have to consider so many aspects, it may look Mexican to meet a current Latin trend but it also needs to go with a small black Armani outfit. Not too folksy but sophisticated as well. Mostly we play with different styles but mainly stick to one and speckle-in another influence here and there. And hope that the buyers will like it.”
“Sounds like table dancing.”
“Don’t mock my trade. But come to think of it, it is.”
“You too, I hope.” We looked each other in the eye and I liked what I saw. Forget it, Calendar girl. “Anyway, to close the subject and finish the analogy, I am simply better at table dancing than the other dancers. But I am not part of the chosen few. Ask Thomas Cornelius, he will probably tell you the names of the ones defining a new style.”
“So, I hear from you that Phoebe can’t pay for the necklace, apartment and loft from her art.”
“And probably not from Daddy’s tuition either. Low wage night watchman and all.”
“Another interview, another mystery,” Ron smiled.
We rode back to San Diego in the steady midday traffic stream of people heading out for their family visits or shopping sprees.
I looked out to the ocean, glistening in the sun.
“And what did you think about her? Is she a candidate for you?”
Ron glanced at me, otherwise concentrating on the traffic. “Sure. She is not in the clear. Juanita is checking for money motives. Real estate, life insurance. And her income situation.”
“What is the most likely explanation for Phoebe’s upscale lifestyle?”
“Come on, surely you can think about it,” Ron gave me a smile.
“No, really. A working girl?”
“Girls and their dirty minds. No, a rich boyfriend!”
“You think so?” I was disappointed.
“Sure. I bet he is either married and having a blonde artist on the side—sorry, nothing against blonde artists.” He chuckled. “Or he is one of La Jolla or San Diego’s upper ten thousand having a steady thing with her. You must admit that Phoebe is attractive.”
“Yeah, if you like the busty California beach bunny.”
“Uh, bust-envy!” Ron cried out. “There is a cushion in the back seat to upholster you for the drive back.”
When we had calmed down, I asked him for his remaining Thanksgiving plans. “My Mom’s invitation still stands, you know.”
“Thank you. Tell your mother that I will take a rain check and maybe come back another day. But I feel that Thanksgiving is a family event.”
“You got family?”
“Sure, I’ll be meeting with Juanita downtown to catch up with our investigation and then I’ll be heading to my parent’s home. You look astonished?”
I moved uneasily in my seat. “Yeah, I took you for the typical cop—divorced, no next of kin, living from fast food, moss in the fridge, dedicated to his work.”
“Less than two out of five. Never married, so never divorced. Parents alive and kicking.”
“They didn’t stop breathing.”
“Nooo, the other thing.”
“I planned to, once. But then I saw too many marriages of my fellows go bust. So I decided to stick with easy partnerships. Maybe things will change if I make it up the ladder or quit one day. What about you?”
Nice trick question, delivered in a matter of fact voice and I almost fell for it, being relaxed and all, chatting with an attractive male. But I cut the corner in time and chastised myself for dropping my guard.
“Well, you have met Mundy. We go way back to college and it has lately developed into a steady relationship.”
“He looks like a steady and nice guy.”
“He is.” And I definitely had to invent a decent way to break the relationship with him soon to keep my chances with Ron.
We stopped at the House on the Moon and I asked Ron about the next steps.
“Nothing’s going to happen today; we did the important preliminary steps but now we have to wait for the reports from forensics. Unfortunately, there are not too many hot leads right now.” Ron tapped his fingers on the wheel.
“The jewelry angle? What about that?”
He looked at me. “Well, how could we ever know whether the Montenhaute set will turn up again? As you said, it was a very special piece among other valuables but only this one was stolen. In my eyes, that makes it a made-to-order job. I doubt that it will be fenced.”
“Detective, you don’t make the most optimistic impression on me.”
“How long will you be in San Diego?” Ron asked.
“The weekend. I plan to open my store again on Monday.”
“Tomorrow is Saturday. I propose we meet tomorrow at headquarters and discuss things. The prelims should be in by then.”
“Fine, I am looking forward to it.” We shook hands in an awkward formal fashion, Ron had nice warm hands, wrapping around my tiny fingers nicely. I jumped out of the car and watched him drive away.
When I turned to step up to the front door of the House of the Moon I saw a car approaching. It was a black Ford Explorer. Taller than me, it stopped right beside me. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t make out the inhabitants until they opened the side window. The driver was a thin man with a thin moustache and thin black hair. He wore a non-descript business suit and a dark tie, probably got his inspiration from a Tarantino movie. On the passenger seat lurked a giant with a mean look, twisted and pressed into the seemingly smallish interior. He wore a light brown suit without a tie and he had a noticeably expensive haircut. Everything else about him looked less nice. A flat nose, cauliflower ears and fleshy slits that seemed to hide his eyes.
“What can I do for you?” I asked, not showing any fear in stance or voice, sounding more courageous than I actually was.
“Miss Moonstone? A word with you.” The thin man was not smiling, a shark circling its prey. His giant companion was not moving at all. “Did you already meet my associate Billy? Billy Bounce?” Had to be the mean giant’s stage name, no hit man would ever be called Billy Bounce. Without looking at me, Billy nodded once.
“What do you want? Who are you?”
“Let us just say that we were hired by a certain party to… retrieve a lost item.” The thin man had the knack of pausing before the last part of a sentence. He tapped on the wheel with leather-gloved hands to make an understated emphasis. “The party is looking for… something. We are inclined to believe that it is… in your possession.”
“You are wrong,” I said evenly, looking into the thin man’s eyes. “Whatever it is, look elsewhere.”
“You will reconsider your statement in time, we are sure of that, Miss Moonstone. Time and patience are running out… quickly.” The thin man leaned back. The interview was over. He threw the car in gear as the window started to slide up. Billy Bounce didn’t look at me; he simply took his left hand into his right, cracked some joints and audibly crunched his teeth over the sound of the Ford motor and the whining window. Or so I imagined. They vanished behind the tinted glass and drove off. When I turned around, I saw Dad standing in the doorway of the House of the Moon, looking after the Ford.
I walked up the stairs and he stepped aside to let me in the kitchen.
“Friends of yours?” he inquired simply, walking over to the stove.
“Not sure. Friends of an old friend, maybe.” I was thinking of my run-in with Thomas Cornelius the night before.
Dad opened the pot with the wild rice, stirred it to check its consistency and said, “There were bad vibes coming from that car.” He looked me in the eye, anticipating my wise crack. “And I don’t mean bad car maintenance!” Went back to the cooking. He knew me too well to probe any further.
“I hear you, Man on the Moon.” I kissed Dad’s cheek and got myself an all-natural mint ice tea from the fridge.
While Dadster, the giant at the toy stove, tended to the kitchen, I walked out into the wild garden where the rest of the family was making a racket like Super Bowl. Mundy had organized a ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ Keith and Mundy vs. Sunny and Jen.
It turned out to be a very nice dinner, Sunny held back on her corporate raids and Dad didn’t mention the cancer of capitalism. It was like a temporary cease-fire, the usual family conflicts suppressed. Don’t mention the war. Mundy told some nice action laden journalistic stories for the kids and Mom was watching us from the wings, enjoying as much as possible the short time with a full family in her home.
Sunny refilled the kids’ cups with soda. “By the way, I changed my name back to Moonstone,” she declared.
“Hear, hear.” My Dad had never liked the ‘Highler’ name, never had liked Tom anyway.
Mom clapped her hand. “Now the sun and the moon are together again, like they should be.” She leaned over to give Sunny a kiss.
Mundy turned to me. “Callie, what about your day as a policewoman?”
Jennifer looked up at Mundy and corrected him with the full seriousness of a kid’s absolute knowledge. “There is no such thing as a policewoman. It’s called police officers, now.” Dallas, Texas!
“We did some interviews. Dull stuff, come to think of it. In my opinion, we got no closer to finding the murderer.”
“How is Andrew Altward?” Dad was asking.
“You know him?”
“Andrew is a regular contributor to our cause,” Dad said. “We sat together on some events. Not lately though, haven’t seen him for a while.”
“He has a very nice penthouse overlooking North Bay and Coronado.”
Mom asked. “Did you meet any of his young girlfriends? At some of the social events, he turned up with young things at his side.”
“No, just the maid.”
“He got hit very hard?” Mundy was asking with mouth full. Jennifer playfully hit him in the ribs.
“Some eighteenth century jewelry got stolen, nothing spectacular, around 500K value.”
“In the news, they said that they are baffled how the murderer had gotten into the safe.”
“Yeah, it is an impressive construction. A whole floor turned into a safe, plenty of electronics.”
The most chaotic moment of the Thanksgiving dinner was the moment when Mom declared the choices for desert. Jennifer and Keith had been under the impression that the salad and vegetables were a mere starter and that the turkey entree was about to come. The wailing and crying were so loud that Mom gave in, went over to the Kozlowski’s and begged for some slices of leftover meat.
Mom sat through the rest of the dinner with arms folded, looking disapprovingly at the children wolfing down cold roasted turkey.
“Mom, look at it from the light side. At least the meat is kosher,” I said to cheer her up.
Mundy got Sunny into a discussion about law ethics in America and Dad and I played a round of softball with Keith while Jen and Mom did the kitchen. Almost a real family. And for the first time on this trip, I felt content.
Thecalm before the storm.