A SLEUTH IN SAUSALITO

                                                             CHAPTER ONE 

Gwen Harris stood outside her rented car in downtown Sausalito. She took three deep breaths and headed for tiny hole-in-the-wall that was the police station.

With a dry mouth and voice she was sure was shaking, she faced the detective. “If you’ve found my mother—I mean her bones, I want to know how she ended up where she died.” She could feel the perspiration breaking out on her face.

“We don’t have that information.”

“Then I’m here to find out.”

The officer shook his head. “We wouldn’t have anything, if the remains weren’t discovered here in Sausalito.”

Gwen blinked. “Then who would?”

“Based on where you said the remains were found, it would be a matter for the Marin County sheriff.”

“Oh.”

Gwen could feel her face color, feeling stupid. She’d come on strong, tried to put on a tough face to get some answers. And then was deflated. Of course it was a sheriff matter; the letters had come from there. The police officer smiled patiently and gave her directions to the sheriff’s office—a few miles north in San Rafael.

She left the tiny station, found her way to her rental car, and burst into tears.

She had held up pretty well on the plane, and finding her way to this town where she’d spent her first eleven years. She hadn’t realized she was so emotionally vulnerable—one mistake and she was reduced to a puddle.

She remembered the first phone call. Her Aunt Marie had phoned her at the University of Michigan and given her the news.

“You’re to call Sheriff Moss in Marin County, California.”

“What about?”

“I don’t want to shock you, Dear. Perhaps you’d better come home, and I’ll tell you.”

“No, tell me now.”

She could hear her aunt breathing hard. She waited.

Finally, her aunt said, “They think they might have found your mother’s bones.”

“What?”

“It’s just a possibility. Based on ‘missing persons’ from years ago, they narrowed it down to a few–”

“What are you talking about? Where were these bones found? Why do they think they could be Mom’s?” The words came in a rushed swoosh.

“They want some X-rays if they can be located, to help identify or rule out the victim.”

“What do you mean—victim?”

“Well, I guess the man didn’t use that word. Anyway, the remains of the person who was found.”

“Was she a victim of foul play?”

“Oh, Gwen, it’s too early for that. We don’t know. See if you can get the X-rays from that skiing accident she had back in 1953. I think it was a Doctor Ramsay in Sausalito. She had a broken tibia. I must warn you, though, they only found parts of the . . . skeleton. So the X-rays could be helpful . . . or not.”

It was too much to take in. Gwen’s head was swimming. Doctors, X-rays, bones. Most of all, for ten years she hadn’t known what had become of her mother. And now, suddenly this information. Possible answers were forthcoming.

She hadn’t heard the last thing her aunt said.

“Gwen, are you listening?”

“Yes, I’m trying to keep up with you.”

“I know it’s a lot to take in, Honey. Let’s talk again tomorrow.”

No sooner had they hung up than Gwen realized she didn’t even know where the bones were found. In someone’s attic? In the trunk of a stolen car?

She called her aunt back.

Someone’s bones were found in a steep ravine betwe,en Sausalito and Stinson Beach.”

“Why weren’t they found years ago?”

“I suppose the deep foliage covered them. I really don’t know.”

“Who found them?”

“A hiker.”

 

Gwen dried her tears, took a few deep breaths and headed for the sheriff’s.

When she finally got there, she was told that the person she wanted to see had gone for the day. It was Friday afternoon.

“Come back Monday.”

She left totally frustrated. She hadn’t come all the way to California from the University of Michigan, where she was a senior in Journalism, to be turned away with no more information than she’d had before she came.

Two weeks ago she’d received a phone call asking her to get in touch with Detective Moss at the Marin County Sheriff’s office. Parts of an old human skeleton had been found in a deep ravine off Panoramic Highway that led to Stinson Beach. An analysis of the remains had been made. There was the possibility that they were those of her mother, Patricia Harris.

Would she, the daughter of this missing woman, please send any X-rays that may have been taken of her mother? The detective gave her little hope that there would be a match.  Only some of the skeletal remains had been found. They had contacted the families of two other missing persons.

Marie tried to contact the doctor in Marin who’d taken care of Patricia at the time, but he had retired.

“Do you remember the place where they took the X-rays, Marie?”

Marie didn’t remember. But she called Megan Denison in Marin. Patricia and Megan had been friends for years. Megan gave Marie the names of two emergency clinics. When Marie called the first one she was told yes, Dr. Ramsay had worked there, and they agreed to look in their archives for X-rays belonging to Patricia Harris.

The waiting period was agony. Gwen had difficulty focusing on her studies in Ann Arbor. She received a ‘C’ on a paper she’d written, the lowest grade she remembered ever getting.

Finally, she was able to get the film from the clinic where Dr. Ramsay had worked . Gwen held her breath. She reminded herself that she was not the only one who’d been contacted. The chances of these remains were not likely those of her mother.

But there was a match.

 

Gwen had spent her first eleven years with her mother in the artsy town of Sausalito. When her mother disappeared, her Aunt Marie came to take her to Michigan, where she’d lived for the last ten years.

Gwen was on the small side—five feet two inches, one hundred ten pounds. With curly brown hair, and green eyes, her aunt reminded her how much she looked like her mother.

 

~

 

Gwen couldn’t let it rest at that. She was both elated to finally get some answers and horrified to think her mother’s life had ended in such a traumatic way. Spring break was starting in two days at the university. Young and impulsive, she took the plane that Friday to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove toward the first town north of the Golden Gate Bridge—Sausalito.

She tried to stay focused on the road, but the surrounding beauty of the Bay, like a magnet, drew her eyes to it.  Allowing herself glimpses off the bridge, she recognized Angel Island in the distance, the Coast Guard Marina below and the old prison Alcatraz out in the Bay. Old memories from her first years spent in Sausalito were coming alive.

As she crossed the famous bridge, knowing the first exit would take her to Sausalito, her stomach turned cartwheels. What would it be like returning to her home town after all these years, and under these circumstances?

Gwen took the Alexander exit, and followed the steep and curving road down to the south end of town, then along Bridgeway, the beautiful main street that overlooked the Bay on one side, and shops on the other. It looked quite different from when she’d been here as a child—more commercial, with new buildings she didn’t remember. The arts community was still alive and thriving. Parts of the water side of Bridgeway had been cleaned up, and there was a park where there hadn’t been one before.

Driving north, past the downtown area, where more tourists than she remembered enjoyed the sites, she could see the forest of sailboat masts in the Bay.

Taking her text books with her, and the journalism papers she was working on, she would only stay a week before returning to Ann Arbor to finish the term.

Gwen was on her way to meet Megan Denison, her mother’s old friend, with whom they’d lived before.

“She’d never have left her child!” Megan had screamed. Megan Denison cared for Gwen until the mother’s sister came from Michigan to claim her. After several weeks all legal means of finding Patricia Harris came to a stop. Megan continued to question friends and strangers alike, but no leads were forthcoming.

What had happened in 1955 to make her mother disappear? Gwen had never known. Patricia’s friend, Megan, had written to her off and on, and assured her whatever the cause, Patricia would never have left her.

“An accident of some kind. It’s possible she drowned, although she was a good swimmer. Or had a sailing accident.”

Megan Denison was the only contact Gwen had in Sausalito. She had phoned Megan in advance to let her know she was coming.

Now, as she approached their meeting place, Gwen felt the thumping of her heart—the dread of going over the past, the eagerness.

They met at the Roma restaurant on Bridgeway, a popular hangout on the main street of Sausalito. Their searching eyes found no difficulty in locating the other. They sat at one of the plastic tables outside.

“You haven’t changed, Megan. I’d know you anywhere.”

Not quite true: At forty-five Megan was heavier now—but still attractive. And her brown hair was already laced with white. The white hadn’t been there the last time they’d been together.

“But you’ve changed, dear Gwen. Twenty-one years old, and the last time I saw you, you were only eleven.” The older woman gave Gwen a hearty hug.

After some polite small talk Gwen got to the matter at hand.

“Do you think it could have been anything other than an accident?” she asked her old friend.

“Like what?”

“Like—something deliberate. Her remains were found at the bottom of a steep ravine!”

“You mean, was she pushed?”

Gwen looked out at the sailboat masts bobbing on the marina. “Yeah. I guess that’s what I mean.”

Megan put her hand on Gwen’s. “We have no way of knowing for sure. But I can’t think of anyone who’d want to hurt your mother. She was well-liked.”

“I want to meet some of the people she knew.”

“Lots of folks left Sausalito. But I’ll do what I can. Oh,” she said suddenly, “you’ll meet my son Alex when he gets back. Do you remember Alex? He was your playmate. He’s with some friends up at Tahoe, spring skiing. He might be able to introduce you to some of the sailing community your mom knew. Patricia was a great sailor.”

“Oh, yes. When will he be back?”

“A week from Sunday.”

“I have to return to school then.”

“Oh. Well, that is a shame.”

They sat in silence for several minutes, Megan stirring her tea, Gwen wadding her napkin in her lap.

The wind came up and Megan’s napkin flew off like a bird. “It’s getting chilly,” she said, retrieving the airborne miscreant. “Let’s go.”

Megan had walked to the café. They got in Gwen’s rental car, and Megan guided Gwen back to her house up on Ebbtide Street. The structure was sixty or more years old, and of no particular architectural style. Several houses on the street were obviously built by the same builder, with small differences in portico and color. But Gwen remembered its charm, and Megan showed her to the same room she’d had as a child.

Her gaze travelled from wall to wall, corner to corner.

“It’s my old room.”

“Yes.”

It felt very strange to Gwen to be suddenly back in the home she’d spent first eleven years in, with her mother. Feelings she’d held back for a long time suddenly broke the dam and flooded through. Her breathing became jerky.

“Of course, we’ve been many changes since then. Carpeting, new curtains.”

Memories flooded in. She started to get dizzy.

“I need the lavatory,” she said.

Gwen wanted to be alone. She allowed herself several minutes, finished by washing her travel-weary face, and returned to Megan, who was now leaving the bedroom.

“I’m sorry,” Megan apologized. “I didn’t –I should have realized.”

“No, no, it’s OK.”

Megan prepared a cold chicken salad for dinner with white wine. They sat at the maple kitchen table with a plastic cloth very much like one Gwen remembered from her childhood. The table still wobbled a bit. Shored up with a series of match boxes, the short leg was still waiting to be fixed.

“Where’s Chad?” Gwen asked.

“He has Lion’s Club tonight. He left a bit early to run some errands. I think my husband wanted to give us some time for girl talk.”

“That was thoughtful of him.”

Megan asked her about school in Michigan.

After supper, Gwen asked Megan if she’d mind if she took a bath.

On the edge of the tub she saw a bottle of bubble bath. Indulging her desire, she poured an ample amount into the steaming water, and then immersed herself. How relaxing. She couldn’t remember when she’d last had a bubble bath. Maybe in this house.

When she was dried and dressed she joined Megan in the living room. Still the same faux Tiffany lamp in the corner.  Some things were so comfortingly familiar.

Gwen leapt to the question she’d wanted to ask all day.

“I want to know about my father, Megan. What can you tell me?”

She heard Megan’s quick intake of breath.

“You must have known him. What was he like?”

“This is going to sound strange. But I don’t know who he was, Gwen.”

“You said as much in one of your letters. But is that really true? You and my mother were such close friends.”

“That’s one subject she avoided. She didn’t want you to be involved with him. But she was always glad she’d kept you.”

“She really was?”

“Yes, she was.”

Just then, they heard Chad’s car in the drive. Gwen sensed she wouldn’t learn anything more about her father tonight.

Chad entered, gave his wife a kiss and held out a friendly hand to Gwen.

Chad Denison was considerably more roly-poly than she remembered him. He was balding in a Friar Tuck sort of way, had a smile which seemed to begin in his twinkling eyes, and a handshake stronger than his appearance suggested.

“My, it’s been a long time. From child to grown woman, all in the blink of an eye.”

“Not quite—a few more blinks than that,” she laughed and gave him a hug.

“It’s so good to see you. We’ve been looking forward to this.”

“So have I. It’s good to see you too.”

“Can I get you ladies anything?” he rubbed his hands together. “A drink or something?”

“I think we’re all set,” Megan said.

They chatted for a few minutes and Gwen realized she was extremely tired. With a three hour time change, where it was already midnight in Michigan, she was ready to give her mind and body a rest.

“I think I’ll turn in,” she said.

“Of course,” they chimed together.

Rummaging through her suitcase for her pajamas, she came across her childhood diary. The last minute, when she was packing, she’d decided to throw it in. If she going to open the pages of the past by revisiting her first home, she might as well take another look at these pages too.

The key had long ago been lost, but it took little effort to release the lock with a bobby pin. As she opened the old book, she heard its imitation leather crack. Leafing through the pages she noticed the handwriting changing from very childish to an older style, where dotted ‘i’s were replaced with hearts.

Then she read, “I’ll always love you, Mama, even if you did run away.”

She closed the book. Not tonight. It would have to wait.

 

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