Read Desert Winter Online

Authors: Michael Craft

Desert Winter

 

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Windfall

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Duplicity

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Novels By Michael Craft

Copyright

 

Naturellement, numéro neuf est encore pour Léon.

acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Steve Morgan and Leigh Ellen Murphy for their generous assistance with various plot details. As before, Keith Kahla and Mitchell Waters provided the driving force that brings this series to print.

windfall

1

Stewart Chaffee heaved a derisive
grunt. “
That's
no way to hide a murder weapon. How in hell are you supposed to disguise a sawed-off shotgun as a walking stick?”

“Precisely my point.” I echoed his grunt, attempting to inflect it with a more ladylike lilt. “The walking stick seems implausible at best. But hiding the gun in a clock cabinet—
that
makes sense. And it's a handy setup that allows our killer to strike again.”

A child-size papier-mâché cherub looked sternly down at us, suspended above a twelve-foot spruce that had been flocked a delicate pastel, an unlikely hue the color of champagne. The angel wore flowing but stiff brocade robes; her puffed cheeks and puckered lips tooted mute excelsis-deos from a long silver trumpet. She—like all the artful ornaments hanging from the tree and tucked among its branches—might have been pilfered from some forgotten storeroom at the Vatican. Without question, Stewart Chaffee's Christmas tree was the most tastefully exuberant specimen I'd ever seen.

Beyond the tree, huge glass doors were folded open to admit the warm, dry breeze of a late Saturday morning in early December. Fronds of date palms swayed along the perimeter of a vast lawn. The carpetlike turf—manicured bent grass—suggested a perfect, boundless putting green.

Indoors, in the lofty living room, sitting not three feet from me, Stewart drummed his fingers on the arm of his wheelchair, nodding. With a wheeze, he asked, “So you plan to adopt that detail—the clock—from the movie plot and use it in your stage production? Purists might object, Claire.”

“It's worth the risk,” I assured him. “When
Laura
was published in 1942, readers readily bought into the improbable melodrama of Waldo Lydecker's old, ornate walking stick serving as a devilishly disguised shotgun. Shortly after, when Vera Caspary's novel was adapted for the stage, the walking-stick gambit remained, and audiences ate it up. But when the movie appeared in 1944, at the height of the
film noir
period, the screenplay took a more realistic, hard-boiled approach: the shotgun was simply hidden by the conniving Waldo in the case of an antique pendulum clock in Laura's apartment, a clock that Waldo himself had given to the enigmatic young heroine.”

I spoke of this history as if I remembered it firsthand, but in fact, it predated my birth by some five years. Stewart, however, at eighty-two, had already reached adulthood when Laura first captivated the masses and became an enduring masterpiece of the American suspense genre.

Leaning toward me, Stewart raised a thinning eyebrow, gray gone white. Behind him, occupying most of a wall, hung an oil painting of heroic scale depicting the rape of the Sabine women. Yellowed by passing centuries and obscured by cracked varnish, the plump, coy beauties looked more titillated than frightened by the armored warriors on their rearing steeds. Incongruously, the picture's grotesque Baroque frame bore festive holiday swags of pine entwined with pink velvet ribbons. Stewart observed flatly, “You've come to borrow a clock.”

Before I could reply, Grant Knoll admitted, “That was
my
idea, Stewart. I seem to recall a marvelous Austrian case clock in your collection. Claire is now in the final week of rehearsal for her first main-stage production at Desert Arts College. I needn't tell you how fortunate we are to have a director of Claire Gray's caliber here in our midst. It's only fitting that every aspect of
Laura
should be perfect. Your clock would be the crown jewel in the setting of Laura's apartment.” Grant winked at me.

I laughed at my accommodating neighbor, who had driven me to Stewart's estate that morning from our relatively humble condominiums, where we lived only steps apart, across a shared courtyard. “God, Grant, you sound as if I'd coached you.”

He leaned from the sofa where we both sat, telling Stewart in a stage whisper, “In truth, milady
did
coach me, all the way over here in my car.”

“This visit was
your
idea,” I reminded him.

“Oh? Guess it was.” Grant smoothed the sleeves of an elegant, lightweight sweater he wore that morning. He then returned his attention to Stewart. “I saw a rehearsal the other night. The set is wonderful, and the production is first-class, but there's a
hideous
old cabinet standing in as the clock. Claire told me roughly what she had in mind, and of
course
I thought of your antique Austrian pendulum clock. It's a whimsical little piece, if I'm not mistaken, not five feet high, with a vaguely oriental motif to the painted decoration of the case. I told Claire, ‘Let's go right to the source and ask him.' Really, Stewart, who else but the king of Palm Springs decorators would be in a better position to supply the finishing touch to a perfect production?”

Lamely, I added, “We'd be delighted to give you printed recognition in the program,” as if Stewart Chaffee's reputation could be aggrandized by a squib in my play's production credits. Though he'd retired from decorating years earlier, Stewart was now recognized as one of the preeminent art-and-antiques collectors in Southern California.

“It'll take me a day to get it out of storage,” he was saying, twirling a hand, as if searching for lost details, past memories. “Pea should be able to track it down.” From a black-and-white pony-skin saddlebag that hung from the arm of his wheelchair, Stewart fished a pad of paper and a pencil, then scribbled himself a note.

“Wonderful,” said Grant. “If we pick it up tomorrow morning, Claire and I can get it to the theater in time for the Sunday-afternoon rehearsal.”

“Tech rehearsal,” I elaborated. “It'll be a long afternoon, and I'd really hoped to have everything in place by then, so I can't thank you enough.”

Stewart gave me a wary grin, confused by my chatter, as if he'd already forgotten what we were talking about. Then he snapped his fingers—“That reminds me, Grant. Have you finished with my Biedermeier desk?”

It was now I who was confused.

“Later today,” said Grant. “The designer showhouse closes this afternoon. I'll pick up the desk and return it tomorrow when I drive back with Claire.”

I must have still looked confused.

Grant explained, “It's a lovely little Biedermeier piece, a diminutive writing desk. It'll fit in the car. That's how I moved it before.”

I now recalled why Grant had suggested Stewart as a source for my clock in the first place: Grant, a high-end real-estate broker, had occasionally borrowed from Stewart exceptional pieces of furniture or art to outfit decorator showhouses for charity events.

Stewart tittered, telling my affable neighbor, “Be careful schlepping that furniture, cupcake. You wouldn't want to chip a nail. Let me send Pea over to help with the toting and hauling.”

“Now,
that
would be a sight,” Grant camped. “Pea with a tool belt and a dolly. Can't you just
see
him sporting big suede work gloves?”

Both men—gay, of course—shrieked with laughter. Though separated by more than thirty years, they shared a brotherhood transcending the age, race, faith, or station of its members. As for Pea, the name was unknown to me.

Wiping a milky eye, composing himself, Stewart asked, “You know the security code, don't you?”

Grant reminded him, “We got in this morning.”

“Yes, yes, but on Sunday morning I'm not sure who'll be around the house to answer the intercom and buzz you in. Just use the keypad at the gate.” And he told Grant a four-digit code, not a very clever one, by my reckoning. It wouldn't take a cryptographer to decipher that the gate code was the year of Stewart's birth.

“Mr. Chaffee?”

I turned at the sound of the voice, which I recognized as that of Bonnie Bahr, Stewart's at-home nurse, who had earlier admitted us.

She stepped farther into the room. “Mr. Lloyd is here to see you. Shall I have him wait?” She folded her hands in front of her white polyester uniform. A big woman with muscled arms (more muscled than those of any man in the room), she wore her lifeless blond hair cropped short and serviceable. In contrast to this inelegant image, her pleasant voice lent a note of femininity.

Grant said, “Please, Stewart, don't detain your guest on our account. Claire and I won't take any more of your time.” He pulled his weight to the edge of the sofa, as if to rise.

“Bah,” said Stewart, “stay put. Lloyd's here so often, he hardly qualifies as a guest.” Then Stewart turned to his nurse. “Hey, you. Show him in, piglet.”

Aghast as I was by his manner of addressing his buxom caregiver, I was even less prepared for her response. She lobbed the insult right back at him: “You crippled old goat—someone ought to put you out of your misery.” Bonnie turned on her heel, marching out of the room.

Grant was no less appalled than I was by this exchange. Taken aback, we both sat stiff and silent on the sofa, not daring to let our eyes meet. Even the cherub, assisted by a fortuitous draft, turned her back on the embarrassing scene. One of the Sabine women, with the back of her hand frozen to her forehead in overwrought horror, silently gasped.

But Stewart roared with laughter. Was the verbal sparring with his nurse merely a well-practiced routine he enjoyed? Or did his laughter signal a callous disregard not only for their acrimony, but also for the discomfort of his guests?

“Stewart!” said a man in his late fifties, presumably Mr. Lloyd, striding into the room. He wore a dark business suit, looking too formal for the desert, especially on Saturday morning. He was followed by Bonnie and by another woman, younger, still in her twenties, also dressed for business, whose ruddy hair, clipped in a severe china-doll coiffure—very Sassoon—gave her a quiet air of urban sophistication. Mr. Lloyd stepped up to Stewart, shaking hands. “Hope I'm not intruding. Have time for a bit of banking?”

Grant and I stood. Stewart remained anchored to the wheelchair. He told the visitor, “Always time for banking, Merrit. Always. In fact, there's something I've been meaning to give you.” He ferreted in his saddlebag.

There was an awkward silence as Stewart continued to rummage, so the visitor turned to me and introduced himself. “I'm Merrit Lloyd, vice president for client services at Indian Wells Bank and Trust. It's my pleasure to serve as Stewart's personal banker. He's a very special customer.”

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