Authors: J. A. Jance
RING IN THE DEAD
J. A. JANCE
To John Douglas
for taking a chance on a guy named J.P. Beaumont
all those years ago.
Back when I was drinking, New Year's Eve was always a good excuse to tie one on, but now those bad old days were far in the past. Mel was out getting a late-Âbreaking mani-Âpedi in advance of our surprise (to her) date to walk three blocks up First Avenue for an intimate dinner for two at El Gaucho. Our penthouse condo allows a great view of the Space Needle, three blocks away. That means, at midnight, we'd have ringside seats from the shelter of our bedroom balcony for the Needle's New Year's fireworks display. The weather still hadn't made up its mind if midnight revelers would be greeted by a light sprinkle or pouring rain. It was certain, however, that at least it wouldn't be snowing.
My wife, Mel Soames, and I both work for the Attorney General's Special Homicide Investigation Team, affectionately dubbed S.H.I.T. Yes, I know. The name is a running joke and has been for a very long time, but we've grown to like it over the years. In the brave new world of no-Âovertime, we both had plenty of comp time available to us, and we had chosen to take it over the holidays, including before and after Christmas. Use it or lose it, as they say.
So I was sitting in my den in solitary splendor, reviewing my life and times and considering a possible list of New Year's resolutions, when the phone rangâÂthe landline, not my cell. Not only do we have a landline, we still have a listed number for it, although it's not one that comes readily to mind since that phone isn't the one I use on a daily basis.
The idea behind keeping a listed number is simple. Being in the directory makes it possible for the Âpeople I want to find meâÂfellow Beaver alums from Ballard High School, for exampleâÂto find me. As for the Âpeople I don't want finding me? For thoseâÂfor the ones who want to sell me aluminum siding for my high-Ârise condo, I answer the phone with an icy, salesman-Ârepelling voice that works equally as well on them and on others, like Âpeople making political robo-Âdials for their favorite candidates and the guys trying to convince me to sign up for the policemen's ballâÂwhich is a scam, by the way. For the most part, the spam-Âtype calls come through with the originating number blocked. Those always go unanswered, and if they leave a message, those don't get picked up, either.
This particular call came with a caller ID name: Richard Nolan, and a 503 phone number that meant it was from somewhere in Oregon. Even so, I answered using my pissed-Âoff, ditch-Âthe-Âsales-Âpitch voice.
“Detective Beaumont?” a woman's voice asked.
I haven't been Detective Beaumont for years nowâÂever since I left Seattle PD. It doesn't mean, however, that I'm no longer that other person.
“I used to be,” I said. “Who's asking?”
“My name's Anne Marie Nolan,” she said. “I live in Portland, Oregon. Milton Gurkey was my father.”
That took my breath away, and it also took me back. When I got promoted to Homicide from Patrol, Milton Gurkey, aka Pickles, was my first partner. We worked together for five years, starting in the spring of 1973. In fact, only months earlier, I had spent time dealing with our first case, which, prior to that, had gone unresolved for almost four decades. Pickles died in 1978. I had long since lost track of his widow, Anna.
“Pickles's daughter?” I replied. “Great to hear from you.”
There was a distinct pause on the phone. “No matter how many times I hear it, I can never get used to the idea that that's what you guys all called my dadâÂPickles. It seems disrespectful, somehow.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I didn't mean any disrespect. For the guys who called him that, it was almost a term of endearment. How's your mother, by the way?”
Anne Marie sighed. “Mother passed away a month ago. She was in hospice up here in Seattle when news about that old Wellington case was in the papers. I read the articles to her. She was glad to know that somebody finally solved it. She said that was a case that haunted Daddy until the day he died.”
“I'm sorry to hear about your mother,” I said. “I wish I had known.”
“You and my dad were partners a long time ago,” Anne Marie said. “Mom remarried twice after Daddy died. The first guy was a loser who didn't hang around long. The second one, Dan, was great. He died two years ago. Mom took his name, Lawson, when they married, so it's not surprising that you wouldn't have gotten word about her death.”
Anne Marie had given me a graceful out. Still, I couldn't help feeling remiss, as if I had been deliberately neglectful. A part of me was glad Anna GurkeyâÂclearly Anne Marie was her mother's namesakeâÂhad known about our finally solving the long cold Monica Wellington case before she died. That case was a loose end left hanging that Pickles and I had dragged around between us the whole time we worked together. Obviously, in the intervening years since Pickles's funeral, Anna Gurkey's life had continued just as mine had, with some good and some bad. Hers was over now, and I regretted that I hadn't made any effort to see her before she died.
“Anyway,” Anne Marie continued, resuming her story, “I was here for several weeks while Mom was in hospice. Once she was gone, I had to go home and get caught up on things in Portland. That's where we .Â .Â .” She paused, seemed to catch herself, before going on with the story. “That's where I live now,” she corrected. “I just left everything in Mother's house as is because I was at the end of my rope. I had expended every bit of energy I could muster, and I simply couldn't face sorting through all that crap by myself. I'm an only child, you see. At the time she died, Mom was still living in the house she and Daddy bought when they first got married, the one I was raised in.
“My mother wasn't a hoarder by any means,” Anne Marie said, rushing on, “but she didn't throw much away. So I've spent all of Christmas vacation up here sorting through the house, getting ready for an estate sale that I'm planning on holding when the weather clears up in the spring. I'm on my way back to Portland now. I want to be back home before all the drunks hit the streets. The thing is, I found something down in the basement in a cedar chest that I thought you might want to see. I don't know where you are in the city, but I'd be happy to drop it off on my way south.”
Pickles and Anna had lived at the north end of Ballard in an area called Blue Ridge. Depending on which route Anne Marie was going to take, she'd be within blocks of my Belltown Terrace condo on her way to I-Â5 and back out of town.
“I'm at Second and Broad,” I said. “In downtown Seattle. You're welcome to stop by to visit.”
“I was going to head out right away,” she said. “I really don't have much time.”
“How about at least stopping long enough for a cup of coffee, then?” I suggested.
“You're sure it's no trouble?”
“We have a machine. It's just a matter of pushing the button.”
“All right then,” she agreed.
“The building has a doorman,” I told her. “Just pull up out front in the passenger loading zone. I'll come down, meet you, guide you into the parking garage, and let you into the elevator. You can't get into it from the garage without a key.”
Once I put down the phone, I stood up and looked around. In the old days the room would have been awash in newspapers, including at least one section folded open to the crossword puzzle page. These days I do the crosswords on my iPad. I closed it up and put it away. Then, leaving the den and my comfortable recliner behind, I went out into the living room, closing the French doors behind me.
Since all the kids had been home for the holidays, the living room and dining room were still decorated for Christmas,. My daughter, Kelly, and son-Âin-Âlaw, Jeremy, had come up from southern Oregon with their two kids. My son, Scott, and his wife, Cherisse, had recently moved back to Seattle from the Bay Area, so we'd had an over-Âthe-Âtop Christmas celebration. Because we'd hired a friend, an interior designer, to come in and do the holiday decorating, the place looked spectacular. I hoped when it came time to put the decorations away, we'd manage to fit all of them back into our storeroom down in the building's basement.
On my way through the kitchen, I made sure the coffee machine was freshly supplied with water and beans. Then I went downstairs to the lobby to wait. I was sitting there, chatting with Bob, the doorman, when a woman in an aging Honda pulled up outside and honked. I went out through the front entrance to meet her. With the wind blowing and a driving rain falling, I was glad to have the building's protective canopy overhead as I hurried over to the car. She opened the passenger-Âside window.
“I'm Beau,” I told her. “If you don't mind, I'll ride along and show you where to park.”
There was a pause with me standing in the rain while she heaved a stack of assorted junk from the front seat to the back. That's what happens when you spend most of your driving time in a car all by yourself. The passenger seat morphs into a traveling storage locker.
Once Anne Marie had cleared the seat, I climbed in. By then I was wet, not quite through, but close enough. I directed her around the building on John, into the garage, and over to where the valet parking attendant stood waiting.
“Just leave your keys with him,” I instructed.
“Where do I pay?” she asked.
“Don't worry about it,” I told her. “I'll have him put it on my tab. They automatically bill me for guest parking at the end of the month.”
I used my building key first to enter the elevator lobby, next to call the elevator, and finally to make it work. Once I had done so and punched the PH button, I caught the questioning look Anne Marie sent in my direction.
“Yes,” I said in answer to her unasked question. “My wife, Mel, and I live in the penthouse.”
It's a long elevator ride. About the time we passed the sixth floor, Anne Marie said, “I always thought your name was Jonas.”
When Pickles and I first started working together, he had insisted on calling me by my given name, even though I much preferred being called Beau or J. P. He had come around eventually, but his family must not have gotten the memo.
“I don't much like my given name,” I said. “Never have.”
After that we fell silent until the elevator door slid open. The penthouse floor of Belltown Terrace is made up of only two units. I showed her to ours, opening and holding the door to let her inside. The attention of first-Âtime visitors is always drawn straight through the dining room to the expanse of windows at the far end of the living room. The glass goes from the upholstered window seat to the crown molding on the ceiling and offers an unobstructed view of Puget Sound on the west and the grain terminal, Seattle Center, and Lower Queen Anne Hill on the north. In the middle of the north-Âfacing windows sat our nine-Âfoot Christmas tree glittering with its astonishing array of lights and decorations.
As I said, most of the time the views through those windows are spectacular with the generally snow-Âcapped Olympic Mountains looming in the far distance. Today, however, in the lashing downpour, the view amounted to little more than variations on a theme of gray on gray. The point where pewter-Âcolored clouds met the gunmetal gray water was somewhere beyond a heavy curtain of rain as a fast-Âmoving storm cell came on shore.
“Sorry about the view,” I said. “It's usually a little better than this.”
I hoped the quip might help lighten my visitor's mood. It didn't. Her face had been set in a grim expression when I first climbed into her vehicle, and that didn't change. Instead, she stopped in the middle of the room and sent a second accusatory stare in my direction.
“If you were a cop, how did you get all this?”
I shrugged. “What can I say?” I quipped. “I married well.”
That was the truth. Owning a penthouse suite in Belltown Terrace would never have been possible without the legacy left to me by my second wife, Anne Corley. But my offhand comment about that did nothing to lighten Anne Marie's mood or change her disapproving expression either. She simply turned away and made a beeline for the window seat.
Anne Marie was a relatively tall woman, five-Âten or so, squarely built, somewhere in her early fifties. Her graying hair was pulled back in a severe bun, and there was a distinctive hardness about her features that I thought I recognized. Between the time when I'd seen her lastâÂas a teenager at her father's funeralâÂand now, the woman had done some hard living, and there was nothing in her demeanor to suggest that this was some kind of cheerful holiday visit.
Once Anne Marie sat down, I noticed that instead of putting her purse on the cushion beside her, she kept it on her lap, clutched tightly in her arms like a shield. I wasn't sure if she was holding on to it because it contained something precious or if she was using it as a barrier to help me keep me at bay. I also noticed a light band of pale skin on her ring finger that intimated the relatively recent removal of a wedding ring.
If the poor woman's mother had just died and if her marriage was coming to an end at the same time, it was no wonder that Anne Marie Gurkey Nolan was a woman under emotional siege. I didn't comment on that deduction aloud, but I tried to take it into consideration as our conversation continued.
“What do you take in your coffee?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just black.”
“Strong or not?” I asked. “My wife gave me a fancy coffee machine for Christmas. It makes individual cups of coffee, and we can adjust the strength for each one by turning the bean control lighter or darker.”
“Strong, please,” she said. “It's a long drive.”
“I don't envy you making that drive in this weather,” I commented as I walked away.
She nodded but said nothing.
I was aware of her watching me through the pass-Âthrough while I was in the kitchen, gathering coffee mugs; waiting for the beans to grind and the coffee to brew. I couldn't help wondering what this was all about. When I brought the coffee into the living room, she took the mug from the tray with one hand, but she still didn't relinquish her grip on the purse.