E is for Evidence Page 2

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I cherish my unmarried state. I'm female, twice divorced, no kids, and no close family ties. I'm a private detective by trade. Usu-ally I'm perfectly content to do what I do. There are times when I work long hours on a case and times when I'm on the road and times when I hole up in my tiny apartment and read books for days. When the holidays come around, however, I find that J have to exercise a certain cunning lest the absence of loved ones generate unruly depression. Thanksgiving had been a breeze. I spent the day with Henry and some pals of his, who'd cooked and sipped champagne and laughed and told tales about days long past, making me wish I were their age instead of my own, which is thirty-two.

Now Henry was leaving town, and even Rosie, who runs the dingy neighborhood tavern where I often eat, was closing down until January 2, refusing to tell a soul what she meant to do with herself. Rosie is sixty-six, Hungarian, short, top-heavy, bossy, and often rude, so it wasn't as though I was worried I'd miss any touching heart-to-heart chats. The fact that she was closing her eatery was simply one more uncomfortable reminder that I was out there in the world all by myself and had best find a way to look after me.

At any rate, I'd glanced at my watch and decided I might as well head on home. I switched on the answering machine, grabbed my jacket and handbag, and was just locking up when Darcy Pascoe, the receptionist from the insurance company next door, popped her head in. I had worked for California Fidelity full time at one point, doing investigations on fire and wrongful death claims. Now the arrangement is informal. I'm more or less on call, doing a certain number of investigations for them, as needed, in exchange for downtown office space I couldn't otherwise afford.

"Oh, wow. I'm glad I caught you," Darcy said. "Mac told me to give you this."

She handed me a file, which I glanced at automatically. The blank form inside indicated that I was being asked to do a fire-scene inspection, the first in months.

"Mac did?" Mac is the CF vice-president. I couldn't imagine him handling routine paperwork.

"Well, actually, Mac gave it to Andy and Andy said I should give it to you."

There was a memo attached to the file cover, dated three days before and marked RUSH. Darcy caught my look and her cheeks tinted faintly.

"It was stuck under a big pile of stuff on my desk or I'd have gotten it to you sooner," she said. Darcy's in her late twenties and something of a flake. I crossed to my desk, tossing the file on top of some others I was working on. I'd catch it first thing in the morning. Darcy lingered in the doorway, guessing my intent.

"Is there any way you can get to that today? I know he's anxious to get somebody out there. Jewel was supposed to handle it, but she's taking two weeks off, so Mac said maybe you could do it instead."

"What's the claim?"

"A big warehouse fire out in Colgate. You probably heard it on the news."

I shook my head. "I've been down in L.A. "

"Well, the newspaper clippings are in there, too. I guess they want someone out there superquick."

I was annoyed at the pressure, but I opened the manila folder again and checked the property-loss notice, which was posted on top. "Wood/Warren?" I said.

"You know the company?"

"I know the Woods. I went to high school with the youngest girl. We were in the same homeroom."

She looked relieved, as if I'd just solved a problem for her. "That's great. I'll tell Mac maybe you can get out there this afternoon."

"Darcy, would you knock that off? I've got to take somebody to the airport," I said. "Trust me. I'll make an appointment for the earliest possible moment."

"Oh. Well, I'll make a note then so they'll know you're taking care of it," she said. "I have to get back to the phones. Let me know when you have the report and I'll come pick it up."

"Terrific," I said. She must have decided she had pushed me far enough because she excused herself and disappeared in haste.

As soon as she left, just to get it over with, I put a call through to Wood/Warren and arranged to meet with the company president, Lance Wood, at 9:00 the next morn-ing, Christmas Eve day.

Meanwhile, as it was 3:45, I tucked the file in my handbag, locked up, and headed down the back stairs to the lot where my VW was parked. I was home ten minutes later.

During our little pre-Christmas celebration, Henry gave me a new Len Deighton novel and I gave him a periwin-kle-blue mohair muffler, which I had crocheted myself-a little-known talent of mine. We sat in his kitchen and ate half a pan of his homemade cinnamon rolls, drinking champagne out of the matching crystal flutes I'd given him the year before.

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