A SLEUTH IN THE HAVEN follows Gwen Harris through another series of frightening experiences. Now working as a junior reporter for the Chronicle newspaper, she longs to write about the real news. She gets her chance, as bizarre and fatal events threaten the residents of The Haven, a retirement home where her friend Megan lives.
Signing on to help the investigation, she gets caught deeper and deeper in the web of the attacker’s agenda. As Gwen tries to balance her work at the Chronicle with a new job at the retirement home, and a boyfriend, the tight-rope she’s walking gets higher and higher.
A Sleuth In The Haven
First Three Chapters
I am going to find you, Charlene. Have to. Lying on that pee-soaked mattress for thirty-five years, I had plenty of time to work out the details. And now I know your whereabouts. You’re down by San Francisco in a town called San Rafael. Now I’m out. And it’s payback time, sister mine.
Ignoring the alarm when it first went off, Gwen Harris was stunned when she opened one eye and saw the time.
Leaping out of bed, she dressed quickly, still pulling on her straight cotton skirt as she raced to the bathroom. Of all days to be late!
She splashed some water on her face, fastened her pony tail with a rubber band, and put on some Maybelline lipstick called Ripe Cherries. More attractive than beautiful, her most stunning feature was her green eyes.
She gulped down a cup of instant coffee, which her roommate Denise had made for her. This would give her a jump-start until she got to work at The Chronicle, where she’d enjoy a real cup of Joe.
“Today’s the interview with your boss, right?”
“Right, and I don’t want to be late.”
“Well, good luck. Hope you get the position.”
Grabbing a piece of cold toast, she said goodbye to Denise, ran down the steps and got in her old VW. She was twenty-three years old, with a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Gwen had now been working for The Chronicle in San Francisco for six months. Today she had arranged an appointment with her boss. I want to get the vacancy Bob Fromm left. I want to write about important things.
Sausalito was beautiful on this sunny day in June. On the previous week, such heavy fog had enfolded the town that it had reduced visibility to a few yards of the surrounding bay. It made her feel they were an island unto themselves. On such days San Francisco was not in sight, nor Angel Island, and certainly not the East Bay. But today was glorious. She rolled down the window of her old VW, and let the morning breeze waft in. Breathing in the sweet air, she said to herself, This is a good day to be alive.
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge toward San Francisco, the sun was already high above the horizon. Not like winter days when she was lucky if it rose before she got to the city. She glanced out toward the ocean. Quite pacified today; no wonder it was called the Pacific. Although, the two years she’d lived in the county of Marin was long enough to know that that body of water had another side— storms of the sea and storms of man, sometimes all in one. She shuddered to remember.
Gwen brought her thoughts back to the moment. She should call Megan Denison— Aunt Megan, as she often called her. Megan Denison had moved into a retirement home, called The Haven shortly after her husband Chad died of colon cancer. She had first grieved her son’s death, and then her husband’s shortly after. Alone, Megan decided that living in a community might help to banish her depression.
In 1967 The Haven had no minimum age requirement, and Megan was the youngest ever to enter at fifty-one. So far, this move had worked fairly well. But Gwen knew Megan was not exactly happy, and she felt she owed it to her old friend whom she’d lived with so long, to keep in touch.
As she got closer to work, her thoughts matched her destination. Although generally pleased with her position at The Chronicle, her co-worker Dick Jenkins was more than a thorn in her side. Older and with more seniority, he seemed to resent her young vivacious energy. He made snide remarks and twice managed to lose some of her copy. But maybe all that would change if her visit with Mr. Vandermere turned out well.
She found a good parking place on the street and declared, “This is going to be my lucky day.”
In the big open room where many writers toiled over their typewriters, Gwen tossed her sweater on her chair, picked up her mug, and noticed Dick wasn’t at his desk next to hers.
“If my luck continues,” she reflected, “he’s taking the day off.”
She headed for the lounge. Finding a fresh pot of real coffee, she filled her mug and started back to her desk. Coming around the corner and heading for the lounge, Dick bumped into her, jarring her mug and causing the hot coffee to splash on her white blouse. Gwen felt a burning sensation on her chest, and one of another kind in her head. If he had apologized she didn’t hear it as she dashed for the Ladies.
“Maybe this isn’t my lucky day after all.”
I don’t know why I ever listened to Charlene. She had me under her thumb from the time she told me that she was the oldest. Said she was born four minutes before me. Called me her little brother.
I’m hitching down to Marin County. I left Folsom with fifteen dollars “for a new start in life”. I can’t believe how high prices have skyrocketed since before I was in the slammer. I splurged today at Oscar’s and got a double-decker hamburger with French fries and salad. But it cost seventy-five cents. I wanted the pie, but that was another thirty-five cents, so I passed.
I should get down to San Rafael by tonight. Last night I slept in a church graveyard. Felt real good being out in the open at night, warm breeze, stars shining up above, and soft grass below. I just rolled around on that grass for a while. It smelled so good, it must have just been cut. It was the first time in thirty-five years that I’d touched real grass. You don’t really appreciate things like that until you’ve been without them for a long time.
I don’t get freaked out like some people do, about all the dead folks being there. When we were little Charlene and I used to play hide-and-seek in a cemetery near where we lived in Petaluma. We’d pack a picnic lunch and hike out there. Ma knew, and she said it was alright, but one day the caretaker kicked us out, said it was disrespectful.
I got word a few years back while I was in prison that Ma had died. Mrs. Lewis, a neighbor wrote and told me. I wrote her back, and asked if she was able to find Charlene’s address, to let her know. I wonder if Charlene found out. I doubt that the neighbor could find out where she lived.
Gwen was determined not to let a soiled blouse spoil the talk with Mr. Vandermere, her boss. She did the best she could to wet the dark spot down with paper towels, and then bent down to the electric hand dryer to dry it off.
At exactly ten o’clock she knocked on Mr. Vandermere’s door.
He rose and beckoned her in with a smile. He checked his notes and looked up.
“Miss Harris, isn’t it? Have a seat. What can I do for you on this beautiful day?”
No small talk here. He looked preoccupied.
Gwen took a deep breath, echoed his smile, and perched herself on the edge of the chair opposite his.
“I’ll get to the point, Mr. Vandermere. I understand there’s an opening in the news department now that Bob Fromm has left us. I’d like to apply for that position.” She sat up straight and looked at him directly in the eye.
“Ah, I see.”
She said, “I’ve brought copies of the work I’ve done since coming to The Chronicle, so you could see— ”
He ignored the papers. “What exactly is it you do here, Miss Harris?”
She swallowed. I’ve covered some society news, also store openings and closings, the films at the park, a Children’s Fair and— ”
He cut her off.
“You’ve been here how long?”
He nodded. “Too soon to consider any advancement.” He smiled. “You know there’s a new hotel going up out there in Marin. I’m sure you can write a fine article on it.”
She didn’t remember much more of what he said. The bottom line was no, she was not going to get that job. He didn’t feel she was ready for it.
As she was leaving he shook her hand and said, “Keep up the good work, and someday— ” he cocked his head in an optimistic way.
I’m getting near San Rafael and now I’m getting nervous. I’m not exactly scared, but it’s getting closer to the time when I have to take some action. And when you’ve loved someone, it’s a hard step to take. Of course, all that love turned to bitterness and hate while I was in Folsom. For a long time I felt sure she’d come to see me, straighten the whole thing out. But she never came, never even wrote a letter.
Charlene was always the boss. She came up with good ideas, though, and we had a lot of fun. She was pretty. Folks always commented on her curly blond hair. I didn’t mind her being so bossy, though, cuz I never had the imagination she had, and never came up with the crazy things we did. I should have known it would get me in trouble someday.
In prison I spent hours lying on my bunk just planning it out in every which way— how I’d do it. I didn’t have a gun, and just the thought of one drives me crazy. Anyway, a gun would make too much noise. But before I do anything, I want her to know it’s me doing it, and why. I need her to suffer for what she did, before I kill her. I think she’ll know why— that accounts for her hiding and changing her name, and it being so hard to track down. If it hadn’t been for this nice librarian at Folsom, who did a lot of research for me, I might never have found out where she is.
When Dad died in a boating accident and Mom became an alcoholic, parental control was a bygone thing. We were so close, me and Charlene. Bold and daring, we were called the Dickens Devils, and were proud of the name. Pranks, like when we went around to neighborhood porches at the crack of dawn with a syringe, injecting vinegar into the caps of glass milk bottles, which caused the milk to curdle. We knew curdling would happen, because Mom used to make sour milk this way for her favorite chocolate cake recipe. I ‘d gotten the syringe at Doctor Henson’s, after he gave me a shot for something. He laid it on a little table and when he left the room for a minute to get me some medicine, I took it.
Once when we were hitchhiking to San Francisco, we were picked up by a preacher, of all people, who cautioned us on the dangers of hitch-hiking. Even jumping on the back of the milk train when we were kids, just for the heck of it. And the movies—
“I’m going to buy one ticket, Sonny, and I’ll go in legit. Then you climb up the fire escape and I’ll open the door in the balcony and let you in.”
After about three times like this, I said, “Why can’t I go in legit, and you climb up the fire escape?”
“It doesn’t work that way. What would that look like— a girl climbing a fire escape— people looking up her skirt?”
She always got her way. I started looking back on the shady things we’d done, and how she’d always put me in the hot seat, making me take the greatest risk.
From stealing candy bars in the drugstore, we advanced to stealing beer from the grocery store. Just walked out the door with a six back in our gym bags, right past the cashier. It gave us a high before the first bottle was open. God, those were the good times. Never got caught, not for anything.
Then came the great graduation glory— climbing up the tall radio tower on graduation night and drinking beer at the top, and all the time bellowing out Al Jolson’s popular song, ‘You’re a Dangerous Girl’— except Charlene sang ”I’m a dangerous girl’. We were spirited alright.
Gwen was not one to spend a lot of time sulking. She reminded herself that she’d made herself known to Mr. Vandermere. OK, she’d wait, continue doing the best she could with the pieces she was assigned to write.
She called on Megan that evening. The Haven was about eight miles north of Sausalito, and then west a bit. She drove there after dinner, so she wouldn’t interrupt mealtime. Megan was reading Gone with the Wind.
“Haven’t you read that before?”
“No, I never did. I’ve seen the movie a couple of times, though. I’m so glad you’ve come. I’ve something to tell you about, Gwen. I don’t know what it is, but the noises coming from next door are intolerable.”
“What kind of noises?”
“Moaning and groaning.”
“Is your neighbor sick?”
“No, she’s out and about during the day, happy as a lark. But at night— ” She rolled her eyes.
“Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Well, there’s a man who comes around. Young enough to be her son.”
“No, I don’t think so. And there’s these whacking sounds, too. Sounds like she’s being hit. I’ve thought of calling somebody up here to check on her, but . . . well, I like her, and I wouldn’t want to embarrass her. She always seems fine the next morning. What do you think it is, Gwen?”
Gwen had a very good idea what it was, and was surprised that Megan couldn’t figure it out.
“Sex,” she said simply.
“Sex!” Megan seemed dumbfounded. “You mean that kind?”
Gwen nodded. “What’s her name?”
“Have you spoken to her about it?”
“Heavens no. What do you think, Gwen?”
“Have you talked to anyone else about it?”
“From what you’ve told me, that she’s fine the next day, I wouldn’t interfere.”
“Well, I can’t stand the noise. I want to change apartments.”
“Why don’t you turn up your music— drown her out?”
Megan just grimaced. “Will you talk to Mark about it, Gwen? See if I can change? You know him. He likes you.”
Gwen sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She and Mark had known each other through a computer class they’d both taken the year before. Computers were just coming into use in businesses; Mark and Gwen had helped each other work on some of the assignments in class.
Since Megan had decided to go to The Haven, Gwen had encountered Mark on two different occasions, once while helping Megan through the interview process required for admission, and recently at a The Haven open house, where they’d renewed their acquaintance. He was a friendly, open man who genuinely had the interests of the residents at heart. And Gwen was hoping to get to know him better. Tall and fair haired, with blue eyes, his smile always conveyed a compassionate interest in the person he was speaking with.
I’ve spent most of that fifteen dollars on food since I got out. I couldn’t believe how prices had gone up. I had to pay twenty-two cents for a loaf of bread and twenty-five for half a pound of bologna. I bought some other stuff that would last me a couple of days. When I passed a gas station, I couldn’t believe it— gas had gone up to thirty-three cents a gallon! Well, I’ve been away for a long time, that’s for sure. I got a jackknife just in case that cost ninety-nine cents. I only have a few dollars left. But I’ve got more important things on my mind today.
If I’m lucky, I’ll make it to San Rafael today. The closer I get, the more nervous I am. I wonder what my sister looks like after all these years. We’re more than twice as old as on that fatal night. Twenty-six then, fifty-four now. I know I don’t look anything like I did then. I’m already losing some of my hair, and what’s left is turning gray. I’ve got a lot of lines in my face. I think all that time in prison made me look older than I am. Wonder if she’ll recognize me. Or if I’ll recognize her. Of course, she had our money, and probably made a lot more. She’s lived an entirely different way than I did, so she’s probably better preserved.
We’d been on I-80, so far, ’til this couple I’d been riding with dropped me off. I spied a phone booth there where I called this Haven place, and got directions on how to get there.
Gee, the town sure has grown. Used to be nothing all the way down Highway 16 until you got to town, except a couple of old barns. Now there’s houses, a church, an auto shop and everything.
One thing I found out when I was in prison was that my sister was no longer going by the name of Dickens. That librarian, who really knew how to work the vital statistics people, found out that she was going by Osmund. I’d never have found her without the librarian’s help.
Anyway, I was on my way with my thumb out again, out on Highway 101. Some guy in a 1939 pickup truck stopped for me. I think there was something wrong with his suspension, and a few other things. It looked like it was held together with Scotch tape and thumbtacks. But I was just grateful for the ride.
Some drivers like to talk, that’s why they pick up strangers. Keeps them from being so lonely. This one was a talker. He had to speak up, though, cuz the old jalopy had a lot of rattles.
As soon as I got in, he reached out to shake my hand, and said, “My name’s Calvin. What’s yours?”
I just said “Sonny,” without thinking.
He said, “Where you going, Sonny?”
“To see my sister.”
“Good man. Family’s important.”
I choked on that.
He started talking about his family, then, how there were eight kids, and he was the oldest. He remembered real fondly how they used to play with old rusty hoops from broken down wooden barrels, run races with them. And kick-the-can. His two sisters liked to play jump rope a lot.
“Once I teased them, saying that rope was used to hang somebody on that tree in back. The girls ran off crying. Father whipped me for saying that. Then he set me down and said, ‘You know we don’t have money for nice toys like some of your schoolmates do. That rope’s about all your sisters got to play with. They don’t even have a doll, did you ever notice?’ I hadn’t. He made me feel real ashamed. I apologized to the girls, and made them a couple of cornhusk dolls to play with.”
Calvin said he had to play father half the time cuz his pa was working two jobs. He even had to deliver his baby sister. “Nobody else to do it,” he said matter of fact.
“How old were you?”
“Reckon I was twelve, then.”
“Wow, how did you know what to do?”
“It wasn’t that hard. I’d already delivered a couple of lambs.”
“We had chickens. They delivered all by themselves.”
We both laughed at that.
“Now it’s your turn,” he smiled. “You got brothers and sisters?”
“Just the one,” I mumbled.
“What did you do when you was kids?”
Well, I wasn’t delivering babies, that’s for sure.
He made childhood sound so nostalgic, I couldn’t help remembering the good times with Charlene. I told him about the games we used to play, how Dad got us this football one summer, and how Charlene was as good a player as any of the boys. And the bicycle we shared, riding at breakneck speed, with one of us on the back— usually me.
“You had a great bringing up,” Calvin said.
I coughed on that, and went on. “When the iceman delivered blocks of ice, as soon as he was out of sight behind the house, we’d scramble up on the wagon and pick up the little slivers of ice.”
“We did that, too,” he said, getting quite excited. “Wonderful on a hot day.”
This guy was so friendly, I kind of got into it— talking, you know. It felt good to think about something pleasant.
“You know,” I said, “Ice-cream was a rare treat reserved for special occasions which required a drive in our old Model T to Knudson’s. Then as we sat in the back seat licking our cones, my father, looking through the rear-view mirror, was constantly calling out, ‘It’s going to drip! Turn your cone, Sonny,’ or ‘Catch that drip, Charlene.’ In later years, we laughed, wondering why we weren’t eating our ice-cream outside.”
Calvin laughed too, and even pounded on the steering wheel in appreciation.
“No ice-cream trucks in those days cruising the neighborhoods,” he said.
“Yeah, I said. But I’d been out of it so long I still didn’t know about cruising ice-cream trucks.
He was driving real slow, with every car passing us on the road. Guess he had to with that old rattletrap. I was impatient; I don’t know why, couldn’t do anything ’til after dark, anyway. And there was lots to see out the window. First, it was country side and cows. Then as we drove south, a lot of buildings sprung up, from car dealerships to motels. I know they weren’t there when I was a kid. The road was wider now too, with two lanes going each way.
“Where you coming from?” he asked suddenly.
I was prepared for this. I’d thought it up while I was still in the tank. “I was working at a gated community north of here.” Well, it was true.
“Good work,” he said.
I figured I get out on 101, but he insisted on turning west to take me where I was going. I didn’t want anyone identifying me later, so I let him pass the place, and about a quarter mile beyond, I said this was my stop.
He shook my hand again and said, “Real nice riding with you, Sonny. You’re good company. Have a nice visit with your sister, God bless her.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and waved him goodbye.
For a while, he put me out of mind of what I was set to do. He made me get all sentimental. Hell, I had to shake off that feeling. I was on a mission, I couldn’t go soft now.
I walked back to the building that was where my sister was living. For a couple of minutes I just stood there on the road looking at it. The place was about four stories high, modern-looking and painted baby-shit yellow.
By now it was about eight o’clock. But in the summer it stays light out until nine. There was a pretty big open space on the west side of the building, with long grasses, and a little knoll. I sat down behind the knoll and waited. And all that time I couldn’t get that driver out of my mind. He was so nice, I was getting mad at him. Maybe that sounds crazy. But I’ve got a job to do, and I don’t want any second thoughts about it.
When it got dark I approached the building. I had to case the place and come up with a plan. No sense going through the front entrance. There might be someone on duty there. There were some side doors, but they were all locked, not surprising. Then I had an idea. I went around to where there was an underground garage. It had a locked gate, but I saw a car exit. The next chance I had, I’d enter when a car left.
Saturday morning, and Gwen was looking forward to sleeping in. But at seven-thirty Megan called her.
“I haven’t had a chance to ask Mark,” Gwen started.
“No, no. It’s not that. We’ve had a fire!”
“Where? Was anyone hurt?”
“I don’t know for sure. But the first floor is still full of smoke.”
“When did this happen?”
“I’m coming over.”
When she arrived, Gwen could still smell the smoke. She opened the windows in Megan’s apartment.
“It was awful, Gwen. We had to walk down the stairway. We couldn’t use the elevator. And most of us were in our nightgowns. We had to go outside, and we couldn’t go back in for nearly an hour.”
“Did everyone get out alright?”
“Ruth wasn’t with us at all. We looked all over for her. Then we realized her boyfriend, Victor, wasn’t there either. Turned out they were out together. ”
“Where was the fire and how did it start?”
“It started in the auditorium, and there are rumors that someone deliberately set it.”
“Yes. I thought this would be a safe haven, but I’m beginning to wonder.”
When she left Megan, Gwen stopped in to see Mark.
He invited her to sit down, and offered her some coffee that she gratefully accepted.
“My first cup of the day. You look worn out, Mark. Were you up all night?”
“Pretty much. Don’t understand how that fire got started.”
“There’s a rumor that it was arson.”
“It looks that way. But who would do such a thing?”
“Do you think it was one of the residents?”
“That’s actually a possibility. We have a couple of folks who are, how shall I say— ”
“Short of a few spark plugs?” Gwen finished.
Mark nodded. “Then again, we have no reason to believe they’re pyromaniacs.”
“I suppose the police are working on this.”
“And the fire department investigation team.”
“Was there a lot of damage?”
“No, not too much. The night watchman smelled it, found it and reported it. The sad thing is we had to evacuate the building in the middle of the night, and the poor residents had to use the stairs to get out.”
“I know. Megan was upset about that. Speaking of her, she isn’t happy in her apartment, Mark.”
“What’s the problem?” He picked up his pipe. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
She laughed. “What’s a little more smoke?”
He offered to put it down.
“No, it’s fine.”
While Mark tamped the tobacco down in his pipe, Gwen explained her aunt’s dilemma.
“Noises, next door.”
“What kind of noises?”
Gwen smiled, hoping that would suffice.
“You don’t mean— ”
“Yes. I guess it’s pretty loud. Moans, yelps and whacks.”
“Whacks?” He couldn’t contain a smile.
“That’s what she says. She’d like to move. Is that possible?”
“I’m sorry, Gwen. The only way I was able to get her in was due to a cancellation.”
“Well, she’ll just have to get used to it, I guess.”
“Tell her to turn up her radio.”
The next morning Gwen called Mark.
“What’s the news on the fire? Was it arson?”
“The investigative team thinks so. It started in a wastebasket in the auditorium.”
“Who would do that?” The same question they’d asked the night before.
“In any case, security measures have been put in place. Visitors entering the building have to sign in now at the front desk.”
“We’re keeping the auditorium locked now. Only staff with keys can open it for events, exercise groups and such. And with this new sign-in system, we’ll have a better handle on who’s coming and going.”
“How are the residents dealing with this?”
“They’re nervous, jumpy. I had to get them all together in the auditorium and explain about the new sign-in system, and why.”
Last night the place cleared out real good. Smartest thing I ever did— starting that little fire. I knew it wouldn’t amount to much, but it was enough to set off the alarm and get everybody out the building. That gave me a chance to check the place out, get the layout, find where the exits were, that sort of thing.
I thought I’d found a good place to hide until I figure out where Charlene’s room is. I was up in the projection booth above the auditorium. At night I could go downstairs to the auditorium, open the door to the outside and take a leak. I never let it shut behind me. But during the day it was more dangerous. And then today came, and it’s blistering hot. Besides, they had a program in here with slides on Yosemite, so I had company. The guy that showed the slides was only three feet from me and I couldn’t move.
I nearly passed out in the heat behind boxes of old film. Damn, it’s hotter up here than it was yesterday. The thought of keeping this as a hideout is out of the question. But where to go? The projectionist was sure taking his time fussing with the projector and collecting his slides. Just when it seemed safe to come out, the guy came back and picked up his soda. Jesus!
I can’t wait to get to Charlene. I’ll have no regrets there. This is my personal crusade, and the deed is long overdue. Charlene knew how to ruin your life. Charlene knew how to rob you of your self-esteem and personal power. God, she was manipulative. A she-devil, that’s Charlene.
I have to get out of this projection booth. Water, that’s the first order of business, and then food. Not so much as a candy bar in two days. Oh, and how good a shower would feel!
I’m going down the stairs to the auditorium. Just as I get there I hear voices, people coming in. The only thing I can do is leave the auditorium by the side door. And that puts me right back outside again. Oh, mother!
I’m going to look for a car, an old dirty one, that the owner doesn’t even use anymore. Yeah, I could spend the night in it. A dusty one would be best— one that hadn’t been driven in some time. Most likely, half these folks never take their cars out at all. The place has a bus that probably takes them everywhere they want to go.
I found just the right car— an old Chevy. It wasn’t even locked.
I was lying down in the back seat so I wouldn’t be seen, hour after hour. Loneliness and depression set in.
If I was in prison at least I’d be busy. We’d be eating, working or sleeping. We all had jobs. After being on laundry for a few years, I was allowed to take this mechanics class, and then I got to work on cars that belonged to the state, or at least the prison. I liked that job the best. Fixing things always gave me a feeling of pride and satisfaction. Once I even got to work on the car that belonged to the head of the prison.
Anyway, now there was nothing to occupy me like that. I had too much time to think. Why had it all gone so badly? Charlene and me had been good together; she’d been my best friend, ever since childhood. The games we used to play, the lemonade stand in the summer. Who could jump the highest and farthest. Hell, she taught me to read.
On Saturday, Gwen visited Megan, making sure she was alright, and then stopped in to see Mark. Nothing new on the cause of the fire, but Mark felt better about the new sign-in policy.
They hadn’t talked long when Mark said, “I hate to run out on you, but I have a meeting.”
“That’s fine. I just stopped in to see Megan.”
He took her hands in his. “I’ll make it up to you.”
They walked out of the building together. His car was parked right in front, so they parted there.
Make it up to her? What did he mean by that? Well, it sounded like something to look forward to.
She walked back to the parking lot and got in her car.
But the engine wouldn’t start. Over and over she tried, refusing to admit that the battery had worn down.
This is all I need, she said out loud. Mark was gone; she’d seen him wheel off. Trying to think, she heard a slight tap on her window, and rolled it down.
A middle-aged man was smiling at her.
“Can I help, miss?”
“My battery’s dead.”
“Do you have any cables?”
Gwen got out and opened the trunk. Good, they were there.
“Just a minute, I’ll bring my car over here, and start it up for you.”
“You’re very kind.”
“Not at all.”
The man went back to the Chevy, glad the woman couldn’t see how he hotwired it. He drove it over to the woman’s car, popped the hood of the car, and asked her to do the same to hers.
He told her to remain in her seat while he attached the cables, and when he gave her the signal, she should start the car. It worked like a charm.
He disconnected the cables and gave them back to her.
They stood outside her car, as Gwen put the cables back in the trunk.
“Thank you, thank you so much. How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. Aren’t we here to help each other in this world?”
“She smiled and turned to leave.
“There is one thing.”
“You should keep your car running for a while so the battery won’t die, and I need to get some lunch. I don’t know the area, and I’m not sure where to go. What do you say?”
He looked harmless enough. She did owe him.
“Alright. How about McDonalds? You can follow me.”
When they got there, he said, “What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Sonny. Glad to meet you.”
Gwen insisted on paying for her own lunch and offered to pay for his in return for his kindness.
The newly established restaurant was the latest hot spot in Marin. They sat at a clean white table on orange seats.
Twice, while they were there, Sonny removed and cleaned his glasses. Was this a nervous habit, or he really couldn’t get them clean?
He asked her if she worked at The Haven.
“No. I have an aunt in residence, I often visit her. How about you?”
On the way over, he’d thought of an answer.
“I’m interviewing for a job.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Car mechanics, carpentry— all kinds of things.”
It was partly true. He’d learned some skills in those thirty-five years.
“Well then, you have a good chance of getting a job. Where have you worked before?”
“At a gated community up near Sacramento.”
They chatted a while until Gwen said she had to be getting on.
He walked her to her car, and as she was ready to drive off, he said, “See you. See you again sometime.”
She thought he looked sad.
Barbara Kelly snapped her suitcase shut, for the last time. She looked around her apartment with satisfaction. She liked living on the first floor. The railed balcony was barely above ground. Due to the steep slope of the land, other balconies on the first floor were much higher off the ground.
No bother with elevators to go up and down for every meal; the dining room was on the same floor, and the trash chute was right outside her door.
Everything was done, and she was ready for the vacation of a lifetime. It would be her first trip outside of the country, a journey to Ireland, the land of her ancestors. Goodness, she’d barely been away from The Haven since she’d first moved in ten years ago.
Now she was ready to catch the ten o’clock bed, as she put it, and sleep tight until her alarm went off at six in the morning. That is, if she could sleep, with the excitement she was feeling. In the morning, she would get dressed, lock up her apartment, and be off.
She would call a taxi in the morning which would take her to the bus, which went as far as Sausalito. Then she’d catch another taxi which would take her to the San Francisco Airport.
She had difficulty sleeping, dosing fitfully until three o’clock. Lying awake, she went over all the details of her trip. Yes, she’d packed her passport, airline ticket, itinerary and the pamphlets and books she’d studied for over a year. She was sure she had everything. The anticipation of joining her tour group in Galway filled her with joy. Her father always said that anticipation was ninety percent of joy.
At four in the morning, since she still couldn’t sleep she decided she might as well get up. In late June, dawn was already showing its gray face. She pushed into her slippers, remembered that she should dispose of the trash. Pulling the plastic bag from the wastebasket, she tightened its closing and took it out to the hall.
In the middle of the night I walked around the building. Most of the first floor apartments were quite a ways off the ground, but because of the hill, there was one with access to the ground, so I climbed up on the balcony and found the door unlocked. One thing I’d learned the hard way from my sister was to wear gloves; no fingerprints. I stepped inside and closed the door. I didn’t see anyone, so I walked through the apartment and on out into the hall.
Against the far wall, she pulled the door open to the trash disposal chute, and made her deposit.
One more thing to do. She’d have to lock the door to her balcony. Just as she turned, she found herself staring at someone coming toward her. What made her sense she was in danger? She opened her mouth to scream.
I can’t believe I did that. I keep thinking maybe I’m imagining it. But no, it really happened. I break out in a sweat every time I remember. I try not to think about it. I got so scared, she was ready to scream, so I hit her and she passed out. I couldn’t just leave her there. I didn’t know what to do with her. And that trash chute was right there.