H Is For Homicide Page 8

She put me on hold long enough to convey the question and elicit a response. She clicked back in. ’’Right now would be fine.’’

’’I'm so thrilled.’’

I hung up the phone. I can handle this, I thought. All of us are subjected to somebody else's power at some point. So once in a while you kiss ass. So what? Either you make your peace with that early, or you end up living your life as a crank and a misfit. As I headed for the door, I passed the wall-hung mirror and paused to check my reflection. I looked fine to me. Jeans, turtleneck, no dirt on my face, nothing green between my teeth. I don't wear makeup, so I never have to worry about caking or smears. I used to cut my hair myself, but I'd been growing it out of late, so it was now shoulder length, just the teeniest bit uneven. Fortunately, all I had to do was cock my head at a slight angle and it straightened right up.

It was with my head thus tilted that I entered the glass cubicle Gordon Titus was apparently using for his little get-acquainted meetings with the staff. Vera's office was located right next to his and I could see her at her desk, shooting me a profoundly cross-eyed look. She was wearing a subdued gray business suit with a plain white blouse, her hair tucked back in a bun. Mr. Titus stood up to meet me and we shook hands across the desk. ’’Miss Millhone.’’

’’Hi. How are you? Nice to meet you,’’ I said.

His grip was appropriately macho, firm and hearty, but not crushing, the contact maintained just long enough to show that his purpose was sincere. At first glance, I have to say he was a pleasant surprise. I pictured dry and gray, someone all nicked in and proper. He was younger than I expected, forty-two at most. He was smooth-faced, cleanshaven, his eyes blue, his hair prematurely gray and stylishly cut. Instead of a suit, he wore chinos and a blue Izod shirt. He didn't seem all that taken with me. I could tell from his glance that my professional attire was a bit of a shock. He covered it well, perhaps imagining that I'd come in to assist the charwoman with the floors before work.

’’Have a seat,’’ he said. No smile, no small talk, no social niceties.

I sat.

He sat. ’’We've been taking a look at the reports you submitted over the past six months. Nice work,’’ he said. I could already sense the ’’but’’ hanging in the air above our heads. His eye traveled down the page in front of him. He leafed rapidly through the sheaf of notes clipped to the front of a manila file folder. The implication was that he had data on me going back to the first time I threw up in elementary school. There was a yellow legal pad in front of him on which he'd scribbled additional notes in ink. His handwriting was precise, the letters angular, with an emphasis on downward strokes. Occasionally, there were pits where the pen point had torn through the paper. I could picture his thoughts speeding across the page while his cursive stumped along behind, gouging out unsightly holes. He'd never forgotten how to do a formal outline. Topics were laid out with Roman numerals, subclauses neatly indented. His mind probably worked that way, too, with all the categories assigned up front and all the subordinate subjects carefully relegated to the lines below. He closed the folder and set it aside. He turned his attention to me fully.

I thought it was time to jump right in and make quick work of it. ’’I'm not sure if you're aware of it, but I'm not actually a California Fidelity employee,’’ I said. ’’I work for the company as an independent contractor.’’

His smile was thin. ’’I understand that. However, there are several small issues we'll need to clarify for corporate purposes. I'm sure you can appreciate the fact that in a review of this sort, we need to see the whole picture.’’

’’Of course.’’

He studied the first and second pages of his legal pad.

I glanced surreptitiously at my watch, under the guise of adjusting the band.

Without looking up, he said, ’’Have you another appointment?’’

’’I have a claim to investigate. I should be out in the field.’’

He looked up at me. His body was motionless. His blue eyes bored into mine without blinking. He was handsome, but blank, so expressionless that I wondered if he'd had a stroke or an accident that had severed all the muscles in his face.

I tried to keep my mien as dead as his. I'm a bottom-line kind of person myself. I like to cut straight to the chase.

He picked up his pen, checking item one, line one on his list. ’’I'm not clear whom you report to. Perhaps you can fill me in.’’

Oh, Jesus. ’’It varies,’’ I said pleasantly. ’’I'm accountable to Mac Voorhies, but the cases are usually referred by individual claims adjusters.’’ The minute I started speaking, he began to write. I'm an expert (she said modestly) at reading upside down, but he was using a shorthand code of his own. I stopped speaking. He stopped taking notes. I said nothing.

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