H Is For Homicide Page 6

I stared at her across the top of her car. ’’Why me? I don't work for him.’’

’’Who knows? Maybe he sees you as an 'important part of the team.'He talks like that. All this rah-rah horse-puckey. It's obnoxious.’’ She opened the door and slid into the driver's seat, rolling the window down on the passenger side. ’’Take care.’’

’’You too.’’

I let myself into my car, my stomach already churning. I didn't want to see Gordon Titus at all, let alone tomorrow morning. What a way to start the week...

The parking lot was empty and the downtown was quiet. We pulled out at the same time, turning in opposite directions. All the stores were closed, but the lights along State Street and the smattering of pedestrians gave the illusion of activity in the otherwise deserted business district. Santa Teresa is a town where you can still window-shop after hours without (too much) fear of attack. During tourist season the streets swarm with people, and even in the off months there's a benign air about the place. I was tempted to grab some supper in one of the little restaurants in the area, but I could hear a peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich calling me from home.

The neighborhood was fully dark by the time I parked the car and entered my gate. Henry's kitchen light was on, but I resisted the temptation to pop in to see him. He'd want to feed me dinner, ply me with decent Chardonnay, and catch me up on all the latest gossip. At the age of eighty-two, he's a retired commercial baker, involved now in catering tea parties for little old ladies on our block. As a sideline, he writes those little crossword puzzle booklets you see in supermarket checkout lines, filled with puns, bons mots, and spoonerisms. When he's not doing that, he's usually chiding me about my personal life, which he thinks is not only dangerous, but much too uncivilized.

I let myself into my apartment and flipped on one of the table lamps. I dropped my handbag on the counter that separates my kitchenette from the designated living room. The place had been completely redone after a bomb blast had flattened it. I'd stayed with Henry until the construction was finished, moving back into the apartment on my birthday the previous May. And what a gift it was, like a pirate ship, all teak and brass fittings, a porthole in the door, a spiral staircase leading up to a loft where I could sleep now beneath a skylight salted with stars. My bed was a platform with drawers built into the base. Downstairs, I had a galley for a kitchen, an alcove for a stacking washer/dryer, a living room with a sofa that doubled for company, and a small guest bath. Upstairs, a second bathroom had a sunken tub with a jungle of houseplants on the windowsill and a glimpse of the ocean through the treetops.

The entire apartment was fitted with little nooks and crannies of storage space, cupboards, and hidey-holes, pegs for my clothes. The design was all Henry's, and he'd taken a devilish satisfaction out of shaping my surroundings. The carpet was royal blue, the furnishings simple. Even after six months, I walked around the place as if blind, touching everything, marveling at the feel of it, the scent of the wood. After my parents died, I'd been raised by a maiden aunt, a woman whose relationship with me entailed more theory than affection. Without ever actually saying so, she conveyed the impression that I was there on approval, like a mattress, subject to return if the lumps didn't smooth out. To give her credit, her notions of child raising, if eccentric, were sound, and what she taught me in the way of worldly truths has served me well. Still, for most of my life, I've felt like an intruder and a transient, merely marking time until I was asked to move on. Now my interior world had undergone a shift. This was home and I belonged here. While the apartment was rented, I was a tenant for life. The sensation was strange and I still didn't quite trust it.

I turned on my little black-and-white TV, letting the sound keep me company while I puttered around, making supper. I sat at the counter, perched on a barstool, munching on my sandwich as I leafed through the file Vera'd given me. There were copies of the initial claim - a single-car accident with personal injuries - a sheaf of medical bills, some correspondence, and an attached summary of the salient points. The adjuster, Mary Bellflower, had flagged the claim for a variety of reasons;the injury itself was ’’soft tissue’’ and subjective, impossible to verify. Ms. Diaz was complaining of whiplash, headaches, dizziness, lower back pain, and muscle spasms, among other things. The repairs to the car were estimated at fifteen hundred dollars, with additional medical bills (all third-generation photocopies, which would permit a bit of tampering with the figures) totaling twenty-five hundred dollars. She was also claiming twelve hundred dollars in lost wages, for a total of fifty-two hundred dollars. There was no police report from the accident scene, and the adjuster was astute enough to pick up on the fact that the collision had occurred shortly after Ms. Diaz's vehicle had been registered and insured. Also questionable was the fact that the claimant was using a post office box as an address. Mary had ferreted out an actual street address, which she'd included in her notes. I noticed she'd been careful to retain copies of the envelopes (showing date stamps) in which the claim forms had been returned. If charges were filed, these would provide evidence that the U.S. mails had been used, thus opening the matter to federal investigation under mail fraud statutes. In fraudulent cases, the claimant will often hire an attorney whose job it is to stick the screws to the claims representative, pressuring for a quick settlement. Ms. Diaz hadn't (yet) engaged the services of an attorney, but she was being pushy about reimbursement. I couldn't imagine why Parnell had turned the case over to Mary Bellflower. On a case this size the temptation is to approve payment fairly quickly to avoid any suggestion of ’’bad faith’’ on the part of the insurance company. However, because California Fidelity had recently chalked up such big losses, Maclin Voorhies, the company vice president, was taking a dim view of rubber stamping. Thus, the matter had been referred to me for follow-up. With Titus on the scene, it might turn out to be too little too late, but that's where matters stood.

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