Some might call her decrepit, and I suppose they would be right. But she works hard at maintaining a stately dignity, standing tall and proud despite her aches and pains. I like that in a gal.
There’s no question about it, though: she’s a very old lady. And like so many grand old dames, she has her secrets. Since I’ve been hired to ferret them out, I’m hoping she’ll succumb to my many charms, and tell all.
This all began several weeks ago. It had been a long, grueling day, and I was exhausted. You know the kind of day I mean: one where there is so little to do, the hardest part is just staying awake. To make matters worse, it was Monday, a day I’ve never been terribly fond of. For the past twenty minutes or so, I’d been watching the clock between yawns, waiting until it was safe to pull out the bottle of Maker’s Mark from my bottom left desk drawer and pour myself a drink. Just as I decided that it was unlikely – and there’s an understatement – that any new clients would be coming this late in the afternoon, the door to the right of my desk burst open, and my perpetually disheveled partner leaped in with a flourish, loose shirt tails flapping. Since Harry is something of a laconic sort of fellow, he got my attention.
“Marty, me lad, I think I’ve got a hot griddle in the oven. Better clear the decks and sharpen your cutlass.”
I should mention here that Harry is a past master of mixing his metaphors.
Harry Carrold (Harold Carrold, if you can believe it) and I have been friends since college. He lives in the office connected to mine by the door he’d bounded through. Not full time, you understand; he does have a home. But old Harry has spent many a night crashed on the old cracked leather couch in his office.
We’ve been working together for a few years now, Harry and I, and he knows as well as I do that there’s little on the decks needing clearing. To put it kindly, business has been slow.
If we haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marty Tremaine.
If we haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marty Tremaine.
I’m a PI. I used to be an “accountant to the stars,” until I just couldn’t take another over-blown ego looking to put one over on Uncle Sam. I took down my CPA shingle in disgust and hung up a new one. I began my new career in LA several years ago. Envisioning myself as the new Sam Spade, I bought myself a trench coat and opened this office with the door out front etched “Tremaine Investigations.” Turns out, I have some skills. And I’m good at reading people, even to the stuff they’d rather you didn’t see. That’s proven to be pretty valuable in this line of work.
And since (in his words) he had nothing better to do, Harry came along for the ride.
This is an odd business. I don’t know, maybe it’s the nature of the beast or maybe it’s just that we haven’t quite caught the wave yet (to use the vernacular of the land), but our cases seem to have come in fits and starts. One week we’re scrambling just to stay afloat, and the next we’re treading water waiting for some action. Suffice it to say that when “a big one” comes our way, it doesn’t take much thinking for us to jump on it. We haven’t earned the right to be picky and choosy just yet.
“Yeah? What’s up?” My casual tone belied the little jolt of hope zapping through me. I’d been worrying all day about how I was going to pay the bills.
Harry came over and threw his rumbled self into one of the client chairs in front of my desk. I’m not sure, but it had been so long since anyone had sat in it, I might have heard it say “ouch.”
“Just had a call from Bernice Lahey.”
“Bernice Lahey… Who’s that?”
“You know, I told you. See...”
He settled in, throwing a leg over one of the chair’s arms, clearly ready to get into a story. Harry’s a great one for stories. “She’s that friend of my bowling buddy Joe’s wife, the one I…”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, yeah, I remember,” I interrupted. Best we don’t get into this particular story. “And?”
“Well, first of all, she’s married now.” Harry pulled his face into an exaggerated hang-dog look.
“Oh, please. You didn’t think she was pining away for you, did you? It’s been about three years, after all, right? So why’d she call you after all this time?”
Harry heaved a big sigh. “Yeah, I suppose. Anyway, reason she called is, she thinks she’s got a problem that she’s not really sure is a problem, but she wants to make sure before she gets in too deep and makes a mistake. She got a little unclear at that point, but from what I gathered, she got this letter, and I think there’s maybe some money involved. But, Marty, it’s more than that. She sounded kind of scared. ” He scratched his head. “Well, whatever. I told her to come in tomorrow.”
The next morning I beat both Harry and our receptionist-secretary and official mother-hen-in-residence Steve (“don’t call me Stephanie”) into the office. Beating Harry in to work was no great accomplishment; he’s never been one to be up-and-at-‘em with the normal people. But for me to be the one to unlock the office door and turn on the lights meant that either Steve was under the weather or I’m in really, really early.
That day it was the latter. Call me anxious, and you’d be right. There weren’t too many days left until flicking the light switch just inside the office door would do nothing but announce that SoCal Ed’s patience had run out. I was really hoping that Harry’s bowling pal’s wife’s friend’s problem would save me from writing a check on my personal account to cover the bills.
I was in the front office standing in front of the Keurig waiting for it to warm up -- I seriously needed to brew myself a good strong cup of Starbucks French Roast (like I said, it was really early) -- when Steve came in, her cap of wild red curls framing the look of incredulity on her face.
She glanced at her watch. “Is something wrong?”
“Nope. In fact if all goes well, everything will be very right. Harry may have found us a client. She’s coming in this morning.”
Steve dropped her handbag in a desk drawer, picked up her Garfield cup, and came over to the coffee station.
“Oh, yeah, Bernice Lahey. Harry told me about her. She’s the one he…” Her voice drifted off.
I looked at her and she gave an eye-roll worthy of our First Lady. Of course Harry had told her. Mother hen, remember?
“Does that mean I’m going to get my paycheck after all?” she asked with a smirk, coating her words with sarcasm. For Steve, sarcasm knows no bounds, so it was a considerable dose.
“Have we ever not paid you?” I kept my tone light. I didn’t want to tell her how close it had come.
Coffee in hand, I went into my office. Before closing the door, I said, “Let me know when this Lahey woman gets here.”
The woman seated across the desk from me wasn’t what I would have called a “looker” and I found myself doubting Harry’s account of the blind date he’d had with her. But she was definitely attractive in a low-key, girl next door sort of way. She reminded me a lot of a younger Jody Foster. Not a Taxi Driver Foster; more a Little Man Tate Foster. Her simply-styled dark blonde hair just touched her shoulders, and she sported that light dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose that I always find charming. She was dressed in a black and white wrap dress with a black sash belt and low-heeled black shoes. She looked quite stylish in the outfit, but there was something about the way she wore it that told me this was a woman who preferred jeans and sneakers.
And she hadn’t come alone. She had a tall, casually dressed man with her, one she didn’t seem entirely thrilled was there. He was what my mom used to refer to as “Black Irish.” His fair face was topped by dark hair, and with his piercing blue eyes, I have to say he was a good looking guy. And that explained why Steve seemed a bit breathless when she showed the couple into my office. Our Steve is a sucker for a handsome Irishman.
When she offered her hand, which trembled a bit in mine, and introduced herself to me, Bernice Lahey’s worried eyes belied her smile. In fact, she looked a little like a deer in the headlights. I think Harry was right; this woman was frightened.
“Thank you for seeing me so quickly, Mr. Tremaine. I’m Bernice McGraw.” The name threw me for a moment until she introduced the man with her. “This is my husband Mike.”
Mike McGraw shook hands with me and said, “Hello.” His deep voice carried the lilt of his homeland. He seemed nice enough, but my radar was picking up something else. I couldn’t help but wonder about the relationship between the two of them.
“Call me Marty, please.” I almost said that Harry had told me a lot about her, but quickly thought better of it. “Happy to meet you both. It’s no problem. My morning was wide open.” And my afternoon, and my tomorrow, and…
“And I’m Bernie,” she offered with a tremulous smile.
I decided to chat with them a bit to put her at ease before getting into what had brought her to Tremaine Investigations. Using the services of a private detective is not something people do every day, mystery novels notwithstanding. And I could see her fear as clearly as if she’d been wearing a sign announcing it.
Besides, Harry hadn’t shown yet, and I thought she might be more comfortable if she got to know me a little before he arrived.
We’d spent a few minutes exchanging meaningless pleasantries, when Harry appeared. He’d buffed himself up, making me wonder again about that long-ago blind date with Bernie. He was wearing his usual khakis, but they were pressed and his plaid sport shirt was topped with a blue blazer. And, wonder of wonders, he’d actually combed his hair.
As I often quip to friends, Harry is Oscar to my Felix. Blessed with a form that makes off-the-rack look designer, I usually look like I’ve stepped from the pages of GQ, if I do say so myself. Harry, on the other hand, would be hard put to claim Mad Magazine. If indeed Mad Magazine would have him. Disheveled doesn’t begin to describe Harry’s normal “look.”
“Sorry I’m late,” he said as he leaned down to kiss Bernie’s cheek. “Bernie. It’s been a long time. How are you?” He turned to Mike McGraw, who hadn’t bothered to rise to greet Harry. ”And you must be Mike.” The two men shook hands.
“Thanks, Harry. Nice to see you, too.” Did I imagine it, or was the smile she gave Harry a bit strained? “I’m fine, but I wish I knew what was going on.”
Intriguing opening, and my cue. Trying to look my most sincere, I said, “Why don’t you fill us in, Bernie, and tell us what we can do to help.”
“Give him the letter, Bernice,” her husband said.
She flashed him a look, and clicked open the black clutch bag she held in her lap. She removed a long envelope.
“I got this a few days ago,” she said as she handed the envelope to me. “It makes no sense to me. I have no idea what it’s about or why I got it.”
The envelope was addressed to Ms. Bernice Lahey McGraw in Pasadena. The return address bore the long name of a prestigious law firm in San Francisco.
I pulled out the letter it contained. It was typed on the same heavy, expensive-feeling vellum as the envelope. The top of the page was occupied by a long list of “Esquires” and half a dozen locations, taking up nearly half the available real estate on the page.
“Dear Ms. McGraw,” it began. I quickly scanned it, then went back to read it again, more carefully this time.
“Dear Ms. McGraw,
It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of your mother. It is our understanding that you have been estranged from her for a long time, and therefore you might not know that she has been fighting cancer for several years. A week ago, she lost the battle.
You may wonder why you weren’t notified immediately, but it was her desire that you not be burdened or feel obligated in any way to handle her funeral arrangements. There was no formal memorial service. She has been cremated, her ashes scattered in Muir Woods, as requested in her final wishes.
You are mentioned in her will. Though there is no legal obligation under California law, we are nonetheless obligated by the specific terms of the will to read it in the presence of all its beneficiaries. We would like to do that as soon as possible.
Please contact my office at the telephone number above so that we may make arrangements satisfactory to all concerned.
Again, please accept my condolences on your loss. I look forward to hearing from you.”
The letter was signed by one T. Malcolm Worthington, Jr., Esq. Looking again at the impressive letterhead, I saw that the junior and senior T. Malcolm Worthingtons were both listed as partners in the firm.
I handed the letter to Harry.
“I’m so sorry, Bernie,” I said to her. “What a cold way to learn such sad news.”
“I suppose it is sad news, but not to me,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Harry asked as he folded the letter, put it back in its envelope, and handed it back to Bernie. “Didn’t you get along with your mother?”
She gave a faint smile. “Oh, I got along with my mother just fine, and I miss her terribly. I have no idea who this woman is, but she isn’t my mother. My mother died three years ago in an automobile accident on the 405.”
Harry and I looked at each other. What? Then Harry asked, “What d’you mean, that they sent the letter to you in error?”
“I don’t know. I have to think that. But to my knowledge, there are no other Bernice Lahey McGraws in LA County, let alone in Pasadena.”
Mike added, “This looks like a big law firm. How could they make a mistake like that? Where would they even have gotten our name and address?”
A hint of a grimace flashed across Bernie’s face at the “our name and address,” then she looked from Harry to me. “That’s why I need your help. It doesn’t seem like it, but what if this is some kind of scam?”
We talked a bit more, and Bernie gave us a Readers’ Digest version of her history. She was born in LA, and had lived here all her life. Her father died of a heart attack when Bernie was a toddler, and her mother never remarried. When she died in the car accident, that left Bernie alone. She has no siblings, and both her parents were only children, so she has no family other than her husband. Bernie and Mike McGraw were married two years ago.
“All my life, until she passed three years ago, it’s just been Mom and me. Then this,” she waved the envelope in the air, “comes out of the blue. It’s got to be some kind of mistake.”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out. We call them up and ask.” I said.
I held out my hand for the letter, and she passed it to me. I pulled it from the envelope and picked up the phone.
A conversation with T. Malcolm Worthington, Jr., Esq, who sounded exactly as you’d expect a guy with a name like that to sound, did little to clear things up.
“I assure you, Mr. Tremaine, we know exactly who Ms. McGraw is, and she is most certainly a beneficiary to our client’s estate.”
The esteemed Mr. Worthington was unwilling to discuss the details of the will nor the family relationship between Bernie and his deceased client on the phone. But he did give me the name of the deceased: Marjorie Mitchum. I repeated the name to Bernie, and she shrugged.
“Never heard of her,” she muttered to Harry.
After much calendar checking, and some back and forth with dates, we ended the call with an appointment for Bernie, with Tremaine Investigations in tow, to meet with T, Malcolm in his San Francisco office the following Monday. The attorney promised to explain everything then. Mike was working as a golf pro and had a lesson he couldn’t cancel, so he wouldn’t be joining us. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that Bernie looked relieved hearing that, making me wonder again about the relationship.
Bernie seemed like a nice person, and something about the vibes I was picking up from both her and her husband made me feel protective of her. I made a silent promise to see to it that she got a fair shake in whatever this turned out to be.
After saying goodbye to Bernie and her husband, Harry and I lingered in the office long enough to rehash the meeting and have a spot of the bourbon I’d been hankering for earlier. We decided I would accompany Bernie to San Fran. Harry was worried that their brief but memorable past might be obtrusive, and I tended to agree with him. Besides, sometimes Harry exhibited all the social graces of a “bull at Sunday Mass.” Remember the mixed metaphor thing?
“And besides,” Harry added we parted on the sidewalk in front of our building, “I want to take a look at that McGraw guy. Something about him skeeved me out.” Apparently, he’d picked up on something that felt off, too.
Over the weekend before the meeting, I did a little research on Marjorie Mitchum nee Bancroft. She had been a well-known socialite and philanthropist, a player in the San Francisco social scene all her life. I easily found reports of her cotillion, her education at Bryn Mawr, the event-of-the-year wedding soon to follow, and her subsequent social appearances, a lot of it in her glowing obituary. She had been all over the society pages both in life and in death. What I couldn’t find was any mention of a connection to Bernie.
Should be an interesting trip.
Posted for River of Mnemosyne Challenge No. 5. Muse 1."If I Could See People's Fears"