It was part of the routine, whenever the Lone Ranger and Tonto had to ride the high plains in search of desperados – or trout – that their neighbor, Mrs. Ella Mulvaney, picked up the mail. She didn’t mind. She was out twice a day anyhow, she said, making sure her teacup poodles, Misty and Tinker, got their daily constitutionals.
It was also routine, for McCormick anyway, to make the trip to Mrs.Mulvaney’s to collect the mail even before unpacking the saddlebags. He didn’t mind. He was fond of Hardcastle’s nearest neighbor, who’d been one of the first to accept him, nearly four years back, as something other than a suspicious character. He only wished he could say the same of her dogs, who were ounce for ounce two of the most vicious animals he’d ever encountered.
But on that fine morning he didn’t hear the usual frantic barks from just inside as he approached Mrs. Mulvaney’s front door. He knew she was home – her spotless ’71 El Dorado sat gleaming in the drive. In fact it wasn’t alone. The late model midnight-blue Buick Riviera alongside it was a clear indication that she had company.
McCormick hesitated. The owner of the Buick was also known to him: Mrs. Victoria Emmers, who owned a pricey place over on Via Cataldo. She had a pair of Dobermans and an attitude to match. In this case it wasn’t so much the dogs that made him uneasy, but the unrelentingly judgmental attitude of their owner.
It was too late to retrace his steps and he knew it. By now, even without the usual poodle alert system, he’d have almost undoubtedly been spotted. It would be both awkward and suspicious to be seen walking away.
He stepped up to the door, arranged his face to something neighborly and cheerful, and rang the bell. Still no high-pitched yapping – perhaps they were off at the doggie spa, getting fluffed. There was a long pause before he heard the latch being fiddled with, and finally the door opened.
Ella Mulvaney’s face was framed in an opening not much wider than necessary, and her voice was hardly more than a whisper. “Oh, you’re back already. I wasn’t – ”
She broke off and glanced over her shoulder, then opened the door a bit more and eased through, not fully closing it behind her. Whatever precautions she was after, it didn’t seem to include secrecy.
“Mustn’t disrupt the ether. It gets unsettled, you know.”
“Ah – ?”
“You know - the ether. The connection between spiritual planes. It’s very thin today.” She looked up at him as though she’d just commented on the chance of rain, then she dropped her voice to an even more confidential tone. “If you ask me, it’s Vicky. I think she’s . . . skeptical.”
McCormick knitted his brows, though the picture was becoming a bit clearer. He could see Vicky Emmers through an inner doorway, in the room he knew Mrs. Mulvaney called her “parlor”. She was sitting very upright in a straight-backed chair at a bridge table. Kitty-corner from her was a young man with pale skin and thick, dark hair. His eyes were closed and his palms were flat on the table, as though he might be holding it down. The impression was one of great concentration. The whole effect was only slightly spoiled by the presence of two diminutive poodles, snuggled under the table at the man’s feet with looks of great contentment.
It was a still-life, though. Nothing more was happening, except that Mrs. Emmers cast a glance in Mrs. Mulvaney’s direction. Catching sight of McCormick, her lips seemed to go a little thinner. McCormick didn’t attempt his usual polite nod at her. He was still staring at the mysterious visitor. Even with no voice or movements to cross-check by, that pale face struck a note that resonated in his memory.
“I’ve got the mail right here.” Mrs. Mulvaney reached back inside toward a small table by the door. “Advertisements, mostly.” She sighed. “Isn’t that how it always is? No one writes letters anymore.”
He broke off his study of the familiar stranger and nodded distractedly as she handed him the stack. He realized she was stepping back through the door with no further invitation to linger. He took the hint and nodded one more time.
“Thanks.” He stepped back as well, and then, as an afterthought, added, “Sorry about the ether.”
She smiled vaguely and shut the door. It wasn’t quite in his face, but close enough.
McCormick was still frowning as he finally turned and headed back to the estate. He sorted as he walked, and had Hardcastle’s larger portion separated out by the time he arrived at the main house. He knocked perfunctorily and didn’t wait for an answer. He could hear the judge fast-forwarding through messages on the answering machine.
He put the heftier part of the pile on Hardcastle’s desk and dropped into the nearest chair, intending to thumb through his own scanty stack. Instead, almost as soon as he sat down, he found he was thinking about that out-of-context face that he had almost-recognized.
He must have been staring. He snapped back into the present and noticed Hardcastle was staring right back at him.
“What’s wrong with you?” the older man grumbled.
“Huh? Nothing . . . well, nothing major. Mrs. Mulvaney has some ether issues.”
“What, she had dental work done?”
“No . . . looked more like a séance.”
Hardcastle stared back at him blankly for a moment.
“You know,” Mark prodded, “everybody sits around a table and some guy tries to get in
touch with the dead. A séance.”
“I didn’t know you had to get knocked out for one of those.”
“Ya got me,” Mark shrugged, “all I know is she said Mrs. Emmers was messing the ether up, so it didn’t sound like things were going very well.”
“Vicky?” Hardcastle looked surprised. “I never woulda pegged her as the séance type.”
“Yeah, well, it gets weirder,” Marks sighed. “The guy who was sitting with her – ‘bout my age, thin, pale, dark hair – I’d swear I know him from somewhere.”
Mark shook his head.
McCormick looked peeved. “You know I have met a couple of people outside of prison.”
“Okay,” Hardcastle conceded, “so this particular choirboy shared a pew with you in which church?”
McCormick let out a long breath and finally shook his head and said, “I dunno. Not prison though. Definitely not Q. Lemme think about it.”
Hardcastle shrugged and reached for his mail, shuffling through it. Mark had resumed staring, at a point somewhere just to the left of the judge’s head.
That’s where they both were a few moments later when the front doorbell rang.
Mark startled. Hardcastle leaned back in his chair and cast a glance over his shoulder and out the front window, raising an eyebrow in surprise.
“It’s Vicky Emmers.”
McCormick cocked his head. “Well, I know she’s not here to pay me a friendly visit.”
He made a move to rise. Hardcastle gestured for him to stay put as he got himself up. He lumbered toward the hallway, looking motivated more by curiosity than neighborliness. He unlatched the door, with an all-purpose smile on his face and no particular surprise in his greeting.
“Well, hello there, Vicky. McCormick mentioned you were over at Ella’s place.”
The visitor, who’d been looking not all that happy to start, sniffed sharply at the mention of Mark’s name.
“May I come in? I need to speak to you.”
Hardcastle stepped back and gestured her into the front hall. She stiffened slightly at her first glimpse of the den. From that vantage point McCormick was plainly visible.
She turned back to Hardcastle. “I thought this might be a bad time.”
“Anyway,” Mark added cheerfully as he started to rise, “I was just leaving. I’ll be . . .” he frowned in search of an excuse, and then shrugged and concluded with, “somewhere else.”
“No,” Mrs. Emmers said with her usual air of decisiveness, “perhaps you should stay. I’d like to hear what you say about this.”
From her tone, it seemed apparent that “this” was nothing good. Mark winced but didn’t sit down again until Hardcastle had finished escorting their guest to a chair and resumed his own place behind the desk.
Mrs. Emmers, sitting primly forward in her seat with her purse securely clutched in her lap, looked not unlike the woman who’d been recently attending the presumptive séance: skeptical. Other than that, though, the ether at Gull’s Way wasn’t transferring any signals. It was a full moment, with one more sideward glance at McCormick, before she nodded sharply in Hardcastle’s direction and spoke.
“You’ve already heard about Ella’s visitor.”
“Not all that much,” Hardcastle admitted cautiously.
“He says his name is Owen Warlow.”
Hardcastle darted a quick glance in McCormick’s direction, but there were no light bulbs of sudden recognition to be seen from that quarter.
Mrs. Emmers leaned in, slightly confidential. “I believe it may be an assumed name.”
“How did Ella meet him?”
Mrs. Emmers’ face was tight with disapproval. “At the cemetery. She was visiting Harold.”
“Harold?” McCormick interjected politely.
“That’d be the late Mr. Mulvaney,” Hardcastle informed him. “It’s been about ten years now, I’d say.”
“Eleven,” Mrs. Emmers corrected. “You know Ella; such a sweet person.” It was clear that Mrs. Emmers did not share that weakness. “The young man claimed he was there to visit his mother’s grave. All lies, I’m sure. These confidence men –” She sniffed again and shot a sharp look at Mark, who was doing his best not to appear confident.
She turned back to Hardcastle and sighed. “You undoubtedly have more experience with these things than I do. He inveigled an invitation to her home, and now has her convinced that he is some sort of medium – that he can communicate with the dead.”
Hardcastle rubbed his thumb against his chin. “You know there’s nothing actually illegal about that –”
“Sleazy and immoral,” Mark interjected, “but not illegal.”
Victoria Emmers shot another glance at him in surprise.
“Unless she claims he defrauded her – lied to obtain something of value, then she’d have standing for a civil suit,” McCormick mulled half to himself, “or maybe on the grounds of failure to fulfill the provisions of a contract – assuming he didn’t actually tap into Harold’s vibes.” He paused on that thought, then looked up at the other two, who were staring at him flatly.
Hardcastle turned to Mrs. Emmers, tapping his own temple lightly with a forefinger. “It’s Torts. Makes ’em a little goofy. But he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head.”
“In truth, I suspected as much,” she sighed. “Which is why I agreed to meet her new ‘friend’. I hoped I might entrap him – to give Ella a chance to see he was a fraud.”
Hardcastle sighed. “Didn’t work?”
“I invented a story about a dead sister. It was rather a good story, if I do say so myself. She died tragically after being jilted by a young man.”
“Suicide?” Mark asked politely.
“No,” Mrs. Emmers shook her head, “I thought that would be too much. I gave her a blood disorder. I looked one up in Taber’s. She had a collection of china cats that she left to me.”
Mark nodded consideringly. “Nice touch, the cats.”
Hardcastle was frowning. “But he wasn’t buying, huh?”
“It’s possible I allowed my true feelings to show. I have a low opinion of frauds and cheats.” Mrs. Emmers stared fixedly at the two men for a moment before plunging on. “He claimed that he wasn’t able to make contact with my departed sister. He even said something rather pointed about my motives.”
Mark cocked his head in assessment. “He was onto you, china cats and all.”
“I appears so, but something else of interest occurred.” She’d shifted her gaze entirely to McCormick. “When Ella came back into the room, after she’d given you the mail, she mentioned you by name to Mr. Warlow, along with a very brief sketch of your situation.”
“You mean she said I was an ex-con? Wait,” McCormick held up a palm toward her, “I don’t really want to hear that,” then muttered, “I thought we got along, her and me.”
“Which doesn’t mean you’re not an ‘ex-con’,” Mrs. Emmers pointed out coolly. “But that’s not the point.” She drew herself up even straighter and turned back to the judge. “I am fairly certain that Mr. Warlow took special notice of the name. He immediately looked toward the window – the one that has a view of the front drive. He was watching Mr. McCormick; I’m sure of it.”
Hardcastle frowned. “Could be lots of reasons for that.”
“Yeah,” McCormick said stiffly. “I’m not in cahoots with him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Of course not.”
Mark looked surprised.
“Well, if you were, you hardly would have come over there, or, at least if you had it would have come as no surprise to Mr. Warlow.”
“Finally, a vote of confidence.”
“Anyway, he was just sitting here, right before you showed up, trying to figure out where he’d seen the guy before.” Hardcastle shifted in his chair and looked at McCormick. “You figure it out yet?”
Mark shook his head. “Maybe if I got another look at him. You think you could convince Mrs. Mulvaney that we’re in need of spiritual guidance?”
“Nah,” Hardcastle looked doubtful, “he’ll just get the heebie-jeebies again. I don’t even have a dead sister with some china cats.”
“No, but you do have an L.A.P.D. lieutenant with access to the FBI fingerprint database.” Mark grinned. “Who needs china cats when you’ve got china coffee cups?”