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In memory of my grandfather
William Guder (1888–1958), whose taste in reading matter helped shape my own
Femme fatale. French for “deadly woman.”
You hear the term a lot these days, usually in connection with noir fiction and film noir. Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Matty Walker in Body Heat. Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Scheming, sexually demanding vixens who trap their lovers in bonds of murderous desire and use them to further their own ends. Lethal women. Jezebel, Salome, Cleopatra.
But they’re not just products of literature, film, the folklore of nearly every culture. They exist in modern society, too. The genuine femmes fatale you hear about now and then are every bit as evil as the fictional variety. Yet what sets them apart is that they’re the failures, the ones who for one reason or another got caught. For every one of those, there must be several times as many who get away with their destructive crimes.
In the dozen years I spent in law enforcement and the thirty-some years I’ve been a private investigator, I never once had the misfortune to cross paths with this type of seductress. Never expected to. Never thought much about the breed except when confronted with one in a movie or the pages of a book or the pulp magazines I collect. Female monsters of a different variety, yes, like the middle-aged pair I’d encountered not long ago who made a living murdering elderly people for their money and possessions.
But a femme fatale in the classic mode? Not even close. If you’d told me that one day I would, and that her brand of evil would be like nothing I could ever have imagined, I would probably have laughed and said no way.
I’m not laughing now.
Neither is Jake Runyon. He was mixed up with her, too, in the same professional way I was, not quite from the beginning but even more deeply and all the way to the end. He’d never come across anyone like this particular vixen, either, and it left him as shaken as it did me.
Her name was Cory Beckett. Real name, not an alias. A deadly woman who brought a couple of new twists to the species.
If it hadn’t been for a bail bondsman named Abe Melikian, my involvement with Cory Beckett would have been peripheral instead of direct.
I was spending an average of only one day a week at the agency now. For one thing, I was not really needed. Business was steady, if not exactly booming—insurance and corporate investigations, mostly—and Tamara had the operation running smoothly in all phases. As far as the fieldwork went, Jake Runyon and Alex Chavez were able to handle most of it, and what excess there was went to part-time operatives. Runyon’s relationship with graphic artist Bryn Darby and her young son seemed to be winding down; I inferred that from the facts that he was even more closemouthed than usual about his personal life and was again putting in long hours on the job, as he had before he’d met Bryn.
Another reason I spent less time at the agency was the promise I’d made to Kerry after once again almost getting my head shot off some months back: no more active participation in assignments that might put me in harm’s way. The very personal investigation that had taken me to northern Nevada a short while ago—a plea from an old lover, Cheryl Rosmond Hatcher, whose son had been arrested for serial rape—hadn’t seemed likely to involve any personal menace, though some had developed unexpectedly and unavoidably. If I’d known in advance that it would, I would not have gone. For that matter, once the trouble had been resolved, I was sorry that I had.
My promise to Kerry was one I had every intention of keeping. Her emotional state was still somewhat fragile after her kidnap ordeal in the Sierra foothills the previous July. Her recovery had been long and slow; it was weeks before she was able to shed the residual fear that prevented her from resuming normal activities, and there was no telling how long it would be before enough psychological scar tissue formed to seal off the wounds entirely.
During those first few weeks, she’d done all the work she was capable of for Bates and Carpenter by telephone and computer from the condo. She’d finally returned to her vice-president’s office at the ad agency on a daily basis a little more than a month ago, and there’d been a noticeable easing of the strain that Kerry—and Emily, who had just turned fourteen, and I—had been under. Our home life was more or less stable again. Whatever else I did, I had to make sure it stayed that way by not burdening her with concern for my welfare. For that reason I had been careful to gloss over the hazardous incidents in Mineral Springs, Nevada.
With Kerry back at Bates and Carpenter and Emily in school, I had plenty of free time on my hands. But I was no longer chafing at semiretirement, as I had before those crazy few days in July. In this hyper-electronic age, most people seem unable to remain disconnected for more than a few minutes, as if they’re afraid of being alone with their thoughts. Not me. I’ve always felt comfortable inside my own head. So mostly I filled up my days with househusband chores and shopping errands, reading and cataloging my collection of pulp magazines, doing other things I’d had little or no time for in the past—walks on the beach and in Golden Gate Park, museum visits, an occasional lunch and bull session with a few old friends and acquaintances. Come baseball season, I planned to attend as many Giants’ afternoon home games at AT&T Park as I could. Work was no longer the be-all and end-all of my life, as it had been for so many years. Even an old dog like me could retrain himself if he had enough incentive—and if he could keep his paw in the game now and then, if only on routine cases.
A routine case was what I thought the Cory Beckett business would be when Abe Melikian laid it in my lap. I wasn’t at the agency that day; I had been out to lunch with Ken Fujita, Intercoastal Insurance’s claims adjustor, for whom I’d done some independent investigating in my lone wolf days, and I was on my way home when Tamara called my cell to tell me she’d just heard from Melikian. The case he had for us had something to do with a potential bail forfeiture, and he’d insisted that I be the one to discuss it with him and his—and our prospective—client. Would I be willing to meet with them at his office at three that afternoon?
Well, why not? I had nothing planned for the rest of the day, and Abe and I went way back. So I said yes.
The client was Cory Beckett.
* * *
I had no real inkling of her true nature at that first meeting. My initial impression, in fact, was that she was not the sort of woman who was likely to need the services of a private investigator. In her late twenties—twenty-eight, I found out later. Strikingly attractive, her sex appeal the low-key, smoldering variety. Sitting demurely in Mel
She had long, thick, wavy black hair and a model’s willowy, long-legged figure, and wore a worried smile that even tuned down had a good deal of candlepower. But what you noticed first, and remembered most vividly, was her luminous gray-green eyes. They had a powerful magnetic quality; I could feel the pull of them, like being drawn into dark, calm water. It was only when you got to know who and what she was that you realized the calm surface was a lie, that underneath there weren’t only smoldering sexual fires but riptides and whirlpools and hungry darting things with razor-sharp teeth.
Melikian did most of the talking at first. He was one of the more successful bondsmen in the city, with half a dozen employees and offices across Bryant Street from the Hall of Justice—a big, gruff second-generation Armenian noted for being a chronic complainer and poor-mouth, as well as for his shrewd business acumen. I’d done a fair amount of work for him over the years, to our mutual satisfaction and trust, which I supposed was the reason he’d insisted on dealing with me personally. He hated bail jumpers, as he called them, even more than other bondsmen did; to hear him tell it, they were all part of a vast conspiracy to ruin his business and drive him into bankruptcy. As a result he was careful to avoid posting bond for anyone who struck him as a potential flight risk, but now and then he got burned anyway. Usually when that happened, he ranted and raved and threatened dire consequences. Not this time. When I sat down with him and Cory Beckett, he was meek as a mouse.
She was the reason. Those eyes and that sleek body of hers had worked their spell on him; he hung on her every word, and the gleam in his eyes when he looked at her was neither cynical nor professional. An even more telling measure of how she’d affected him was an unprecedented willingness to split the agency’s fees with her if I accepted the case.
The subject under discussion was Cory Beckett’s brother, Kenneth, who had been arrested and arraigned six weeks ago on a grand theft charge. The bail amount was a cool fifty thousand, which meant she’d had to put up the usual 10 percent commission in cash plus some kind of collateral for most or all of the rest. I didn’t ask what the collateral was; it was none of my concern.
“The trial’s three weeks off yet,” Melikian said, “so we got that long to save the bond and the kid’s tail. But technically he’s already a jumper on account of one of the terms the judge set for his bail.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Not allowed to leave the city without police permission. The court finds out he’s in violation, the judge’ll issue a bench warrant for his arrest.”
“Uh-huh. And he’s already gone.”
“Yeah. And it don’t look like he’s coming back for his trial, unless you find him and get him back here in time.”
“Does his lawyer know he skipped?”
“Sam Wasserman? Hell, no. And he won’t find out if we can help it.”
That was easy enough to understand. Wasserman was a well-respected criminal attorney, but something of a straight arrow in a profession sprinkled with crooked bows. If he knew his client had skipped, he would probably inform the court and then withdraw from the case.
“How long has your brother been gone, Ms. Beckett?” I asked her.
“At least three days,” she said. She had one of those soft, caressing voices, maybe natural, maybe affected. Intimate even when she was playing the worried little sister.
“I had some business out of the city and when I returned, he was gone from the apartment we share.”
“What did he take with him?”
“Clothing, a few personal belongings.”
“Yes, but he has it turned off. I’ve left a dozen messages.”
“Why do you think he ran away? At this particular time, I mean.”
“The strain must have gotten to him.… I shouldn’t have left him alone. He’s not a strong person and he’s terrified of being locked up for a crime he didn’t commit.”
With any other client, Melikian would have rolled his eyes at that. Nine out of every ten bonds he posted was for an innocent party, to hear them and whoever arranged their bail tell it.
I said, “You have no idea where he might have gone?”
“None. Except that it won’t be far, and he’ll either be at a yacht harbor or marina—some kind of boat place—or there’ll be one close by.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Kenny hates traveling alone, any kind of long-distance travel. He won’t fly and he’s never driven more than a hundred miles in any direction by himself. And boats … well, they’re his entire life.”
“Working on or around them, you mean?”
“That’s what he does—deckhand, maintenance man, any job that involves boats.”
“Has he ever been in trouble with the law before?”
So the self-imposed travel restrictions didn’t necessarily apply. Fear of being sent to prison can prod a man into doing any number of things he’d shied away from before.
“The grand theft charge,” I said. “What is it he’s alleged to have stolen?”
“A diamond necklace. But he didn’t steal it. I know he didn’t.”
That meant nothing, either. Most people refuse to believe a close relative capable of committing a serious crime, no matter how much evidence exists to the contrary.
“How much is the necklace worth?”
“Assessed at twenty K,” Melikian said.
Some piece of jewelry. I asked who the owner was.
“Vorhees. Related to Andrew Vorhees?”
“His wife,” Cory Beckett said. “His drunken, lying wife.”
Andrew Vorhees was a relatively big fish in the not-so-small San Francisco pond. High-powered leader of the City Maintenance Workers Union, yachtsman, twice unsuccessful candidate for supervisor. A man with an underground reputation for fast living and double-dealing and a penchant for scandal. It was whispered around that he had kinky sexual tastes, had been a regular customer of one of the city’s high-profile madams whose extensive call-girl operation the cops had busted a couple of years back. It was also whispered that his socialite wife was a severe alcoholic. She had cause, if the rumors about her husband were true.
“How does your brother know Margaret Vorhees?” I asked.
“He doesn’t, not really. He works … worked for her husband.”
“In what capacity?”
“Caring for his yacht. At the St. Francis Yacht Harbor.”
“Is that where the theft occurred?”
“She claimed it was, yes—the Vorhees woman. From her purse while she was on the yacht.”
“Why would she have a twenty-thousand-dollar necklace in her purse?”
“Taking it to a jeweler to have the clasp repaired, she claimed. My brother was the only other person on board at the time.”
“Where was the necklace found?”
Cory Beckett sighed, flicked a lock of the midnight hair off her forehead. “Hidden inside Kenny’s van.”
I didn’t say anything.
“He swears he didn’t steal it,” she said, “that he has no idea how it got into his van. Of course I believe him. He’s not a thief. He had no possible reason to take that necklace.”
“Except for the fact that it’s worth twenty thousand dollars.”
“Not to Kenny. He doesn’t care about money. And he certainly wouldn’t have taken it to give to me, as Margaret Vorhees claims. Or any other woman. No, she put the necklace in his van, or had somebody do it for her.”
“Why would she want to frame your brother?”
“I don’t know. Neither does he. Some imagined slight, I suppose. Rich alcoholics … well,
“Is your brother the kind of man who makes passes at married women?”
“My God, no. What kind of question is that?”
“Sorry, but it’s the kind I have to ask.”
“Kenny’s not like that at all. He’s a very shy person, especially around women. He’s never even had a girlfriend. His only real flaw … well…”
“Yes, Ms. Beckett?”
She ran the tip of her tongue back and forth across her lips, moistening them. The movement made Melikian squirm a little in his chair. “If I tell you,” she said, “you’ll think he’s guilty, that he stole the necklace because of it.”
“My job is to find him, not judge him.”
“… All right. It’s drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?”
“How bad is his habit?”
“It’s not a habit, really. He only uses them when he’s stressed out. But they don’t help, they just make him paranoid, even delusional sometimes.”
“No. Oh, no. Never.”
“Do you know who his supplier is?”
“No idea. I don’t take drugs.”
I hadn’t even hinted that she did. That kind of quick defensive response is sometimes an indication of guilt, but it was none of my business if she snorted coke five times a day and had a Baggie of the stuff in her purse. No judgments applied to her as well as her brother at that point.
I said, “How much money did he take with him, do you know?”
“It couldn’t be much more than a hundred dollars. Wherever he’s gone, he’ll try to get some kind of work connected with boats. That’s the way he is, no matter how much money he has.”
“Does he have access to any of your bank accounts?”
“No. We keep our finances separate.”
“I let him use mine now and then, but … no, none of his own.”