I was sitting in my office, listening to the staccato drum of my fingers on my desktop, when she walked in.
“I’m looking for Michael Arbogast,” the woman said.
“You’re looking at her.”
She seemed taken aback. “I … I guess I was expecting a man.”
“Most people do. Frankly, it can be something of an advantage.”
Even in today’s post-Gloria Steinem, equal opportunity climate, people seem to prefer male private eyes.
“Interesting.” She sounded like she meant it. Keeping her deep blue eyes on me, she took a seat, uninvited. “Did you change it for that purpose?”
“No. It’s my real name.” I wondered vaguely why that would matter. “Anyway, you must have come here for a reason. What can I do for you?”
She leaned forward. She was the kind of blonde who exuded a sultry, yet innocent air.
“It’s my Uncle Charlie. He’s disappeared.”
“Could he have simply left town without telling you?”
She shook her head. “He would have said something. We’re very close.”
“Why don’t you give me the details?”
She proceeded to do so. Uncle Charlie was an entrepreneur, it seemed, and a highly successful one.
“He always has plenty of money,” she said. “He’s always lavished gifts upon my sister and me.”
“Yes.” Her lips puckered. “Charlotte. She seems to think that just because they both go by Charlie that they have some kind of weird bond. Creepy, huh?”
“Um. I guess.”
Without further prodding, she launched into a mini-rant about her narcissistic sibling. I took a few notes, but tried to steer the discussion in a more rational direction.
A few more pointed questions later, we’d managed to establish that one day Charles Oakley was there and the next day he wasn’t.
“Have you called the police?”
“No!” She blurted the word. “No, police.”
“Why?” I didn’t like where this was going.
“Because … I think he may have been involved in something illegal.”
Fabulous. I took down the details of Uncle Charlie’s mysterious ways. The way money seemed to simply appear in his bank account. The way everything he touched turned to gold.
When she paused for breath, I jumped in with a question. “If he were going to hide somewhere, any idea where he’d go?”
“He’s always wanted to go out West. Maybe there.”
“Anywhere in particular?”
She shook her head.
I groaned internally. The West took in a lot of territory.
“Who are his closest friends and associates? Anyone who might provide some insight.”
She looked thoughtful. “You could try George Kaplan. They were once partners.”
I jotted down the name. She added, “One other thing. A family heirloom is missing. An emerald ring he promised to give me.”
I noted this, as well.
“The ring had great sentimental value,” she said. “If anything has happened to my uncle, I’d like to get hold of it. It’ll be all I have left to remind me of him.”
“Yes, of course.” I cleared my throat. “First, I need your name and address. Plus there’s the matter of my fee.” I saved the most important part for last.
“Naturally. I’m sorry. My name is Marnie Smith. I live in Pittsburgh, but I came to Baltimore to visit Uncle Charlie. How much do I owe you?” She pulled a leather-encased checkbook from her purse.
I had her sign my standard agreement, requesting triple my normal retainer amount. She wrote the check without blinking.
After exchanging cell phone numbers, she said, “I’m staying at the Bates Motel, if you’d like to drop by sometime.” She placed her hand on mine and stared into my eyes.
“Um, not to be rude, but maybe you missed the part earlier about me not being a guy?”
She smiled “And you must have missed the fact that I’m a lesbian.”
I felt my face flush. “Well, it’s not exactly stamped on your forehead, is it?
“No. I suppose not.” She gave my hand a squeeze. “It’s just that I thought we might be … I’m sorry. I completely misunderstood.”
“No problem,” I said, gently pulling free of her grip. “I’m on your side, Ms. Smith. Even if I don’t play for your team.”
“Of course. But, please … call me Marnie.”
After depositing the check, I stopped by the boardinghouse Charles Oakley called home. The fact that a wealthy entrepreneur would choose to live in a boardinghouse did little to dispel any concerns I harbored that Oakley’s entrepreneurial enterprises might be criminal. The landlady said he’d cleared out a few days ago but paid rent several months in advance, so that was no problem. She let me take a quick look through his room. No dead bodies, blood stains or other obvious signs of skullduggery. And no clues as to where he’d gone.
Since Charles Oakley did his entrepreneurial thing from home, there was no office to search. So I went looking for his former business partner, George Kaplan.
Kaplan lived in a dilapidated mansion on a hill. A long flight of stairs led up to it. I hiked them to the top — thirty-nine steps (I counted). Once I reached the door, I turned to take in the small vista afforded by the higher elevation.
As I prepared to knock, the door swung open. A tall thin man stood there.
“I saw you coming.” He looked me up and down.
I took a moment to recover. “Is George Kaplan here?”
He smiled. “Oh, yes. This way.”
As I followed him, it struck me that he hadn’t even asked who I was or what I wanted. He led me to a set of basement stairs. “He’s down here. In his workshop.”
“Okay.” I trailed behind the man, as we descended the steps. “By the way, my name is Michael Arbogast.”
“I know,” he said, stopping and turning to look at me. “Marnie sent you, right?”
“I can’t discuss who I represent.”
“Skip it. I know it was her.” He turned and we continued downward. The stairs were dark, and I figured if this guy even mentioned casks of amontillado, I’d hightail it out of there. He took us into what he called the “fruit cellar,” which had been converted into a workroom dominated by a table. A table covered with heads.
“Fascinating,” I said. “Kaplan’s a taxidermist?”
“Indeed he is.”
Kaplan’s clients really had a thing for stuffed heads. Buffalo, moose, bears, lions, cougars, leopards. He had a wide sampling of big game.
“So … Kaplan?”
“He must have stepped out. Maybe I could help you.”
“And you are?”
He extended his hand. “Ambrose Church. I’m his nephew.”
Church explained that he worked as Kaplan’s apprentice. It was his hope to take over the business one day.
I think it takes a special kind of person to spend their days stuffing dead animals. I could already tell that Ambrose Church was pretty special.
After explaining my desire to find Charles Oakley, Church smiled. “That Marnie. Don’t bother to deny it. I know she put you up to this.”
“What do you mean? Put me up to what?”
Church explained that Marnie had a strange relationship with her uncle. She seemed almost insanely jealous of her sister, Charlotte, because of the bond Charlotte shared with her uncle based, apparently, on name alone.
“If you had to guess, what do you think has happened to him?”
“My guess,” Church said. “I think he’s run away. I think he wants Marnie out of his life.”
Church’s words created an interesting conundrum. First, they belied what Marnie had said about her uncle doting on her. Second, they put me in the uncomfortable position of looking for someone who might not wish to be found.
I tried to reach my client on her cell and got voice mail. Not bothering with a message, I proceeded straight to the Bates Motel.
The place had, to put it kindly, seen better days. I wandered into the reception area, where an anemic-looking, skittish young man sat behind a desk, guarding a large, leather-bound guest register. I had no idea such things still existed.
“May I look at your register?” I asked.
“Why? Who are you? What’s this about?” He peered at me with beady eyes.
Rather than parse out each question and try to answer them individually, I simply said, “I’m trying to find Marnie Smith. I’m a business associate and I haven’t been able to reach her. She told me she was staying here.”
With an anxious flourish, the young man turned the open book my way. “Feel free to take a look,” he said, his voice cracking.
I scanned the few — and I mean very few — names in the register. No Marnie Smith. I did see a Marie Jones, however. Interesting.
“It appears that my business associate may have registered under an assumed name,” I told the desk clerk. Or given me a false name. Or both. “Could you ring Marie Jones in her room?”
The young man complied with haste, to no avail. However, he was reluctant to tell me her room number. Through my usual diplomatic persuasive methods — which, in this case, consisted of threatening to sic the board of health on him and his rattrap motel — I was able to get the information.
I knocked on the door to Unit #1 and waited. A rustling sound came from inside. The door opened. She stood before me, looking slightly amused.
“Hi, Marnie,” I said. “Assuming that is your real name?”
She shook her head. “I’m not Marnie. I’m Charlotte. We’re twins.”
After inviting me inside, Charlie (as she preferred to be called) said Marnie had made a most unusual request.
“Marnie and I are both brunettes,” Charlie said, her expression quizzical. “But, just recently, she asked that I dye my hair blonde like hers.”
“I thought you two weren’t close?”
Charlie looked shocked. “What gave you that idea?”
“I, um, clearly misunderstood something your sister told me.” The same sister who registered in a rundown motel under a false name and who’s looking for a man who may be trying to steer well clear of her.
In an attempt to change the subject, I asked, “Any idea why your sister wanted you to do this?”
“Not at all. At first, I resisted, but she almost begged me. I agreed mostly to make her happy. Sometimes I think Marnie gets a bit jealous of the bond Uncle Charlie and I share. I’d do anything to change that.” She looked pensive. “Anyhow, she’s gone. I had the impression she was going to look for our uncle herself.”
I sighed. “Good of her to tell me. She mentioned an emerald ring. A family heirloom your uncle was supposed to give her. Do you know anything about that?”
Charlie shook her head. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
Swell. Apart from finding out that Marnie wasn’t a natural blonde, I’d learned little. “So what are you doing here?”
Charlie shrugged and smiled. “She asked me to be here in case you stopped by looking for her. I’m glad you did. Now, I can check out of this dump.”
“And did she explain why you needed to do this when she could have called me anytime?”
Charlie shook her head. “I asked her, but she insisted it was important I be here. I didn’t want to pry further and upset her. Marnie can be a little … eccentric.”
“If by eccentric you mean extremely weird and possibly a pathological liar, I’d have to agree.”
Charlie looked sorrowful. “She’s changed. She hasn’t been the same since she met that stranger on a train.”
She then recounted a long story about Marnie’s cross-country trip to Rapid City, South Dakota. She’d always wanted to see Mount Rushmore. Well, sure, haven’t we all?
“She met a man who …,” Charlie paused. “Well, if you ask me, he was a bad influence.”
“Tell me what you know about him.”
“All I remember is his name. Roger Thornhill.”
Turned out Thornhill was a local. I looked up his address. He lived in a house so big, Buckingham Palace could have been its servants’ quarters.
After failing repeatedly to reach Marnie on her cell, I made an appointment to see Thornhill. When someone’s that rich, you can’t simply knock on their door. You have to make appointments to see them.
I was still trying to figure out how to ask Thornhill about Marnie without giving away our business relationship — which in itself I was also trying to figure out — when a butler ushered me into a book-lined study.
Thornhill strolled through the door, looking like he’d walked directly from the eighteenth hole. Tanned and handsome, he flashed a blinding smile. “Ms. Arbogast. It’s good to meet you.”
We went through the usual formalities — a handshake, small talk, glimpses of impossibly white teeth. Finally, I said, “I’m trying to find Marnie Smith. I understand you know her?”
“Yes. She stayed with me recently. I offered to put her up here instead of that flea bag motel she’d checked into. That clerk there gave me the creeps, actually — ”
“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “Can you just tell me where she is?”
“Well,” he said and launched into yet another long story. He and Marnie had been riding around Glen Cove in his good friend Lara’s Mercedes. During the ride, Marnie mentioned that she planned to go to Santa Rosa, California. She thought her Uncle Charlie might be there, since he’d often spoken of his fondness for the town.
“Good grief,” I said. “Why didn’t she just tell me her uncle might be there?”
Thornhill laughed in a not entirely mirthful way. “Marnie can be difficult.”
No shit, I thought.
After trying Marnie’s cell number for the umpty-umpth time, I threw in the towel on that approach.
Apparently, Marnie had taken matters into her own hands. However, for all intents and purposes, I still had a client. So I still had a job to do and a duty to uphold. Not to mention questions I wanted answered.
I intended to find my client and get to the bottom of this.
If I was going to find Marnie, I’d need to use the element of surprise. So, I bit the bullet and spent part of her healthy retainer on a plane ticket to San Francisco. I managed to snag a deal on a flight. I went north by Northwest to Minneapolis, where I connected with a flight to San Fran. From there, it was maybe an hour’s drive to Santa Rosa. I intended to find Marnie, Charles Oakley or both, if it was the last thing I did.
Northern California is a pleasant place. Rolling hills, vineyards, temperate climate. Yet, as I sped north in my rental on the 101, I was too focused on how to find Marnie and Uncle Charlie to appreciate these lovely attributes.
One thing I did know was Charlie’s full name. And, assuming Marnie hadn’t adopted yet another alias, I knew hers.
Thornhill had also provided one more clue. Uncle Charlie was an avid historian, who had a fascination for old Spanish missions. It was quite possible that he might be staying at a B&B near Santa Rosa that he’d heard about. I’d start my hunt there.
The Mission of Saint Jude Bed and Breakfast couldn’t have been more appropriately named. What with Saint Jude being the patron saint of lost causes and given my situation with Marnie, I pulled up to the B&B thinking, “This must be the place.”
The B&B looked in every way like a mission, complete with bell tower. I walked into the lobby, where a balding guy dressed as a monk sat at a reception desk. Suppressing the urge to bolt (Catholic school had left its indelible mark), I walked up and asked if a woman answering Marnie’s description had been there.
The man fished out a pack of cigarettes. Tapping one out, he produced a book of matches and proceeded to light up.
Frankly, this put me more at ease, despite California’s strict smoking laws. It underscored the fact that this monk wasn’t going to be doing any Gregorian chants anytime soon.
“Yes, a woman like that came here to meet one of our guests. Why?”
“I’m a business associate. I need to find her.”
“Last I saw, they were taking a walk around the grounds.” He waved his cigarette, airily.
I strolled the well-manicured grounds, past trellises of bougainvillea and berms carpeted with bright, spiky ice plant blossoms. The sweet, heady odor of mock orange blossoms perfumed the air.
As I walked, I glanced up at the bell tower and saw two people tussling with each other — a man and someone I could have sworn was Marnie. My heartbeat quickened.
I ran toward the tower building. In vain, I tried to find the entrance. A bald, pudgy man with a solemn expression ambled by. I grabbed him and asked how to reach the bell tower. Without a word, he pointed and I ran off.
The door he’d indicated led to a long, circular flight of stairs. I climbed them fast as I could, but ran out of breath halfway up. I took a quick rest, looked down and got dizzy. Hanging onto the rail, I turned my gaze upward and resumed climbing.
While pulling myself up the last few steps, my lungs near to bursting and my leg muscles barking complaint, I heard a man scream. I flung myself through the door. Marnie stood looking over a ledge as the scream faded.
“Marnie.” It was all I could manage.
She turned and looked at me, eyes wide with shock. “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing. What the hell is going on?”
Marnie’s face darkened like a stormy sky. “Charlotte. That bitch told you, didn’t she?”
I shook my head. “All she said was something about Roger Thornhill.” I rambled through the litany of steps I’d taken over the past few days to find my own client. “Marnie, I’ve been looking all over for you. I find you here arguing with a man I assume is Charles Oakley. Now he’s dead. I think you owe me an explanation.”
“Okay,” Marnie said. “I lied to you.”
Marnie flinched. “I’m ashamed to say this, but my uncle didn’t shower me with love or money. He always liked Charlotte. We were identical twins, yet he always preferred Charlotte.”
“How could he even tell you apart?”
“He said they had some weird psychic connection. It was sickening. I had to stand by and watch her get treated like a queen. Meanwhile, he abused me.”
She lowered her gaze, looking truly tortured.
“You mean …?” I asked.
“Yes. He sexually abused me. Touched me inappropriately, as it’s put these days.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been horrible.”
“The man was evil,” she said. “He was sick. By shoving him to his death, all I did was rid the world of a cancer.”
“So you came to me … why?”
Her face contorted. “I wanted to use you to establish my alibi. I paid my sister to pretend to be me. Obviously, the bitch double-crossed me.”
Oh, good. Twin pathological liars.
“All right. So you figured your uncle was probably here. Then you hired me and directed me toward George Kaplan — who I never did meet, by the way — sending me down a deliberate dead end, so I’d go to the Bates Motel where your sister was supposed to give you an alibi? Have I got that straight?”
“Exactly. A simple and elegant plan, wasn’t it?”
“Well …” I shook my head. “If you say so. What about the emerald ring?”
“Oh. I made that up. I thought it would provide you more incentive.”
“Cute. So now what?”
She drew herself up. “Are you turning me in?”
“Marnie, if that is your name, a man just fell off the tower. I didn’t see anything and I can’t prove anything. And this conversation? Never happened.”
She blew out a breath. “Good enough. Oh, by the way — here.” She reached into her purse, pulled out and handed me a paperweight. I recognized it as one from my desk.
I blinked. “You … you stole this from me?”
“Yes.” She issued a deep sigh. “I’m not only a liar, but a kleptomaniac. Plus I’m not even a lesbian. I seem to be incapable of loving anyone — ”
“Marnie, Marnie.” I waved my hands around. “Too much information, okay?”
“Sorry.” She shut her mouth and looked depressed.
“So what will you do now?”
She examined her well-manicured nails. “Oh, I don’t know. Change my name, maybe dye my hair a few more colors. Leave the country, see the world.”
“Why not start a new life here?”
She snorted. “Are you kidding? This place is for the birds.”