"V" is for Vengeance
So this is how it went down, folks. I turned thirty-eight on May 5, 1988 and my big birthday surprise was a punch in the face that left me with two black eyes and a busted nose. Con-tributing to the overall effect were the wads of gauze in both nostrils and a fat upper lip. My medical insurance sported me to the services of a plastic surgeon, who repaired the old schnozz while I was blissfully sedated.
On my release, I retreated to my studio apartment, where I lay on my sofa, keeping my head elevated to minimize the swell-ing. This allowed me time to brood about my ill-treatment at the hands of a virtual stranger. Five or six times a day, I'd check my reflection in the bathroom mirror, watching handsome red and purple bruises migrate from my eye sockets to my cheeks, blood settling in circles as conspicuous as rouge on a clown's face. I was only grateful my teeth had been spared. Even so, I spent days explaining my sudden resemblance to a raccoon.
People kept saying, "Oh, wow! You finally got your nose done. It looks great!"
This was entirely uncalled for as no one had ever complained about my nose before, at least not to my face. My poor snout had been broken on two previous occasions and it never occurred to me that I'd suffer a repetition. Of course, the indignity was my own fault since I was sticking said nose into someone else's business when I was so rudely assaulted by a short-arm blow.
The incident that heralded my fate seemed insignificant at first. I was standing in the lingerie department at Nordstrom's Department Store, sorting through ladies underpants on sale, three pair for ten bucks; a bonanza for someone of my cheap bent. What could be more banal? I don't like to shop, but I'd seen a half-page ad in the morning paper and decided to take advantage of the bargain prices. It was Friday, April 22, a date I remember because I'd wrapped up a case the day before and I spent the morning typing my final report.
For those of you just making my acquaintance, my name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a licensed private detective in Santa Teresa, California, doing business as Millhone Investigations. In the main, I deal with bread-and-butter jobs; background checks, skip tracing, insurance fraud, process serving, and witness location, with the occasional rancorous divorce thrown in for laughs. Not coincidentally, I'm female, which is why I was shopping for ladies underwear instead of men's. Given my occu-pation, I'm no stranger to crime and I'm seldom surprised by the dark side of human nature, my own included. Further personal data can wait in the interest of getting on with my sad tale of woe. In any event, I have additional groundwork to lay before I reach the stunning moment that did me in.
I left the office early that day and made my usual Friday bank deposit, taking back a portion in cash to carry me over the next two weeks. I drove from the bank to the parking garage under the Passages Shopping Plaza. I generally frequent the low-end chain stores, where aisles are jammed with racks of identical garments, suggesting cheap manufacture in a country unfettered by child labor laws. Nordstrom's was a palace by comparison, the interior cool and elegant. The floors were gleaming marble tile and the air was scented with designer perfumes. The store directory indicated that women's intimate apparel was located on 3 and I headed for the escalator.
What caught my eye as I entered the sales area was a display of silk pajamas in a dazzling array of jewel tones...emerald, amethyst, garnet, and sapphire...neatly folded and arranged by size. The original unit price was $199.95, marked down to $49.95. I couldn't help flirting with the notion of two hundred dollar pj's against my bare skin. Most nights, I sleep in a ratty oversized tee shirt. At $49.95, I could afford to indulge. Then again, I'm single and sleep alone so what would be the point?
I found a table piled with scanties and picked my way through, debating the merits of high-cut briefs versus boy-shorts versus hip-huggers; distinctions that meant absolutely nothing to me. I don't often buy undies so I'm usually forced to start from scratch. Styles have changed, lines have been discontinued, entire manufacturing plants have apparently burned to the ground. I vowed if I found something I liked, I'd buy a dozen at the very least.
I'd been at it ten minutes and I was already tired of hold-ing lacy scraps across my pelvis to judge the fit. I scanned the area, looking for assistance, but the nearest clerk was busy with another customer; a hefty woman in her fifties, in spike-heeled shoes and a tight black pantsuit that made her thighs and butt bulge unbecomingly. She would have done well to emulate the sales clerk in her conservative dark blue dress and sensible flats. The two stood in front of a rack of matching lacy bra-and-bikini sets on little plastic hangers. I couldn't imagine the chunky woman in bikini underwear, but there's no accounting for taste. It wasn't until the two parted company that I saw the younger woman's big leather purse and shopping bag and realized she was simply another customer, shopping for lingerie like everyone else. I returned to my task, decided a size S would do, and gathered an assortment of pastels, adding animal prints until I had fifty dollars' worth.
A girl-child of about three scurried past and concealed herself in the inner recesses of a rack of lounge wear, knocking several hangers to the floor. I could hear an anxious mother whose voice was raised.
"Portia, where are you?"
There was a movement in the lounge wear; Portia wiggling deeper into her hiding place.
The mother appeared at the end of the aisle, a woman in her twenties, probably trying not to sound as anxious as she felt. I raised a hand and pointed at the rack, where I could still see a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes and two sturdy legs.
The mother pushed the clothes aside and dragged the child out by one arm. "Goddamn it! I told you not to move," she said, and swatted her once on her backside before she retreated to the elevators with the little girl in tow. The child seemed totally unaffected by the reprimand.
A woman standing nearby turned with a disapproving look and said to me, "Disgusting. Someone should call the floor manager. That's child abuse."
I shrugged, remembering the many swats I'd endured at my Aunt Gin's hands. She always assured me she'd really give me something to cry about if I wanted to protest.
My attention was drawn to the woman in the black pantsuit, who was now peering wistfully at the silk pajamas much as I had. I confess I took a certain proprietary interest, having lusted after them myself. I glanced at her and then I blinked with disbelief as she slid two pairs of pajamas (one emerald, one sapphire) into her shopping bag. I shifted my gaze, wondering if the strain of panty-buying had caused me to hallucinate.
I paused, feigning interest in a rack of house robes while I kept an eye on her. She rearranged the display to disguise the gap where the stolen pajamas had been resting mere moments be-fore. To the average observer, she appeared to be restoring order to an untidy table top. I've done the same thing myself after rooting through a pile of sweaters in search of my size.
She glanced at me, but by then I was scrutinizing the construction of a house robe I'd removed from the rack. She seemed to take no further notice of me. Her manner was matter-of-fact. If I hadn't just witnessed the sleight-of hand, I wouldn't have given her another thought.
Except for this one tiny point.
Early in my career, I'd graduated from the police academy and during my two year stint with the Santa Teresa Police Department, I'd worked a six month rotation in property crimes; the unit handling burglaries, embezzlement, auto theft, and retail theft, both petit and grand. Shoplifters are the bane of retail businesses that lose billions annually in what's euphem-istically referred to as 'inventory shrinkage.' My old training kicked in. I noted the time (5:26 P.M.) and studied her as though I were already leafing through mug shots, looking for a match. Briefly, I thought back to the younger woman she'd been chatting with when I'd first seen her. There was no sign of the younger woman now, but it wouldn't have surprised me to find out they were working in tandem.
With the older woman now in close range, I upgraded her age from mid-fifties to mid-sixties. She was shorter than I and probably forty pounds heavier, with short blonde hair back-combed to a puff and sprayed to a fare-thee-well. In the clear overhead light, her make-up glowed pink while her neck was stark white. She crossed to a table display of lace teddies, touching the fabrics appreciatively. She checked the whereabouts of the sales staff and then with her index and middle fingers, she gathered one of the teddies, compressing it into accordion folds until it disappeared like a handkerchief crumpled in her hand. She eased the garment into her shoulder bag and then removed her compact as though that had been her intent. She powdered her nose and made a minor correction to her eye make-up, the teddy now safely deposited in her purse. I glanced at the rack of bras and panties where I'd first seen the two women. The rack had been thinned considerably and I was guessing she or the other woman had added any number of items to her cache of stolen goods. Not to criticize, but she should have quit while she was ahead.
I went straight to the register. The sales clerk smiled pleasantly as I placed my selection on the counter. Her name tag read Claudia Rines, sales assistant. We were nodding acquaintances, in that I saw her from time to time at Rosie's Tavern, half a block from my apartment. I frequented the place because Rosie was a friend, but I couldn't think why anyone else would go there, aside from certain undiscerning neighbors of the alcoholic sort. Tourists shunned the restaurant, which was not only shabby and outdated, but devoid of charm; in other words innately appealing to the likes of me.
Under my breath, I said to Claudia, "Please don't look now, but the woman over at that table in the black pantsuit just stole a lace teddy and two pairs of silk pajamas."
She flicked a look at the customer. "The middle-aged blonde?"
"I'll take care of it," she said. She turned and picked up the house phone, angling her body so she could keep an eye on the woman while she spoke in low tones. Once alerted, an agent in the security office would check the bank of monitors in front of him, searching for the suspect in question. Strategically placed cameras picked up overlapping views that covered all three floors; 40,000 square feet of retail space. When he had her in view, he could pan, tilt, and zoom to keep her under continuous observation while the loss prevention officer was dispatched.
Claudia returned the receiver to the cradle, her professional smile still in place. "He's on his way. He's one floor down."
I handed her my credit card and waited while she removed price tags and rang up the sale. She placed my purchases in a shopping bag and came around the end of the counter to hand it to me. She was doubtless as conscious of the shoplifter as I was, though both of us tried not to call attention to the fact that we were tracking her. On the far side of the floor, the elevator doors opened and a man in a dark gray business suit emerged with a walkie talkie to his lips. He might as well have worn a sand-wich board announcing his status as a loss prevention officer.
He made his way past infant and children's wear and into lingerie, where he paused to engage Claudia in conversation. She relayed what I'd told her, saying, "This is Mr. Koslo."
We nodded at one another.
"You're sure of this?" he asked.
I said, "Quite." I took out a photo copy of my PI license and placed it on the counter where he could see it. While none of us looked directly at the woman in the pantsuit, I could see the color draining from her face. Shoplifters are nothing if not canny in their assessment of jeopardy. In addition to closed circuit television cameras, sales staff and the store's plain-clothes floor walkers were all a source of peril. I'd have been willing to bet she had close to a photographic memory of every shopper in the area.
Nearby customers seemed unaware of the drama being played out, but I was transfixed. The shoplifter's gaze flicked from the loss prevention agent to the escalators. A direct path would have forced her to walk right past him. I thought a move was ill-advised and apparently, she did, too. Better to keep her distance and hope the threat evaporated of its own accord. In most stores, policy dictates that no one make contact with a customer under surveillance as long as she was still on the premises and had the opportunity to pay. For the moment, the woman was safe, though her agitation surfaced in a series of random gestures. She looked at her watch. She glanced toward the ladies room. She picked up a half slip, studied it briefly, and then replaced it. The items she'd stolen must have felt radioactive, but she didn't dare return them lest she call attention to herself. The prospect of being apprehended must have obliterated the alternatives she'd planned if the caper turned sour.
Her best course of action would have been to adjourn to the ladies room and toss the stolen merchandise in the trash. Fail-ing that, she could have abandoned her shopping bag and headed for the elevators in hopes of stepping into the next available car. Without the pilfered items in her possession, she'd be home free. Until she left the store without paying, no crime had been com-mitted. Perhaps with something of the sort in mind, she removed herself from the agent's line of sight and ambled into women's plus size department where she looked right at home.
Mr. Koslo moved away from the counter without visual reference to the woman. I watched as he circled behind her in a wide arc, herding her from the rear. Claudia moved directly to the escalator and went down, probably to intercept the woman if she tried leaving by that means.
The shoplifter's gaze darted from one area to the next as she considered viable escape routes. Her only choices were the elevators, the escalators, or the fire stairs. With Koslo ten yards behind her, the elevators and the fire stairs must have seemed too far away to chance. From her current location, the aisle widened to form a generous apron of pale marble that led to the escalators, tantalizingly close. She strolled out of the plus size department and crossed the open floor at a leisurely pace. Behind her, the agent adjusted his speed to correspond with hers.
On the far side of the escalators, I saw the younger woman in the dark blue dress appear at the mouth of the short corridor leading to the ladies room. She halted abruptly and as the shoplifter reached the top of the escalator, a look flashed between them. If I'd entertained doubts about their being in cahoots, I was convinced of it now. Maybe they were sisters or mother and daughter on a regular late afternoon outing, ripping off retail goods. In that brief freeze frame, I took a mental inventory of the younger woman. She was fair, forty by my guess, with untidy, shoulder-length blonde hair and little or no make-up. She turned on her heel and returned to the ladies room while the older woman moved onto the escalator, Koslo seven steps behind her. The two of them sank from view, first the woman's head disappearing and then his.
I crossed to the balustrade and peered down, watching them glide slowly from the third floor to the second. She must have realized she was boxed in because the knuckles of her right hand were white where she clutched the rail. The sluggish speed of the moving staircase must have sent her heart into overdrive. The fight-or-flight instinct is almost irresistible and I marveled at her self-control. Her partner would be of no help to her now. If the younger woman intervened, she risked being caught in the same net.
Claudia was waiting on the second floor at the foot of the moving stairs. The shoplifter kept her attention fixed straight ahead, perhaps thinking if she couldn't see her two trackers, they couldn't see her. Once on the second floor, she took a hard turn and stepped onto the next escalator down. Claudia stepped on after she did so that now there were two store employees in that slow motion foot chase. The fact that the shoplifter was aware of them took away their home court advantage. By this time, however, the game was in progress and there was no way to abandon the pur-suit. I could see a thin pie-shaped portion of the first floor shoe department, which I knew was only a short stretch away from the automatic doors that opened onto the mall. I left the three of them to their own devices. By then, the older woman was no concern of mine. I was interested in her companion.
I crossed to the short corridor that led to the ladies lounge and pushed open the door. I was hoping she was still there, but she might well have slipped past me while I was watching her friend. To my right, an anteroom had been set aside for mothers with babies, affording them privacy to nurse, change stinky diapers, or collapse on a well-upholstered couch. That area was empty. Across from it, there was a room where sinks lined the two opposite mirrored walls, with the usual paper towel dispensers, hand blowers, and plastic-lined waste bins. An Asian woman foamed her hands with soap and rinsed them under running water, but she seemed to be the only customer present. I heard a toilet flush and a moment later, the younger woman opened the door to the second stall. She now sported a red beret and wore a white linen jacket over her navy blue dress. She still carried the shopping bag and her big leather purse. The only oddity I noted was a short horizontal scar between her lower lip and her chin; the sort of mark left when your teeth are driven through your lower lip on impact. The scar was old, with only a white line remaining to suggest a tumble from a swing or a fall against the corner of a coffee table; some childhood misfortune she'd carried with her since. She averted her face as she brushed by me. If she recognized me from the lingerie department, she gave no sign.
I kept my expression blank and headed for the stall she'd just vacated. It took me half a second to peer into the wall-mounted receptacle meant for used sanitary supplies. Six price tags had been clipped from articles of clothing and tossed in the bin. I listened to the sound of her retreating footsteps. The outer door closed. I scurried after her and opened the door a crack. I didn't see her, but I knew she couldn't have gone far. I proceeded to the mouth of the corridor and peered to my right. She stood in front of the bank of elevators, pushing the down button. Her head came up, as mine did, at the sound of a per-sistent high-pitched whoop from the ground floor. The older woman must have breeched the transmitter-receiver system at the exit doors, where electronic surveillance tags had activated the alarm. Once she stepped outside, it would at least allow the loss prevention agent to stop her and ask her to return.
The younger woman pressed the down button repeatedly as though to speed the arrival of the car. The elevator doors opened and two pregnant mothers emerged side by side, pushing strollers ahead of them. The younger woman pushed her way past them and one turned to look at her with annoyance. Another shopper approached in haste and called out, not wanting the doors to close before she had a chance to get on. One of the pregnant women reached back and put a hand against the doors to stall their closure. The shopper smiled gratefully as she stepped in, murmuring her thanks. The elevator doors closed and the two pregnant women ambled off toward infant and children's wear.
I made a bee line for the fire exit, laid one hip against the push-bar, and entered the stairwell. I went down as rapidly as possible, dropping two steps at a time while I calculated the younger woman's escape alternatives. She could take the elevator as far as the second floor, or the first, or proceed all the way down to the basement level where the parking garage was located. If she realized I was on her tail, she might leave the elevator on 2 and take the escalator up to 3 again, in hopes of throwing me off-course. On the other hand, she probably wanted to get out of the store as quickly as possible, which made the first floor the obvious choice. Once she slipped into the busy mall, she could doff the white linen jacket and the red beret and hurry away, knowing there was no chance I'd reach the exit doors before she'd been swallowed in the crowd. I reached the second floor landing and used the railing as a pivot as I took the next flight down, muffled footsteps echoing as I ran. Another possibility occurred to me as I galloped down the stairs. If she'd arrived at the store with an eye to a leisurely day of thieving, she might have wanted her car handy, with a trunk capacious enough to accommodate multiple shopping bags stuffed with stolen goods. How many times had I see shoppers dropping bags off at the car before returning to the mall?
I rounded the landing at the first floor and bypassed the exit as I sped toward the parking garage. I took the final short flight of stairs in two leaps. The door at the bottom opened into a small carpeted lobby with offices visible behind a set of glass doors. The exit doors slid open as I reached them and then politely closed behind me. I paused to take in the vast under-ground garage. I was standing in a dead-end bay, circumscribed by a short loop of parking spaces coveted because of their proximity to the store's entrance. I've watched cars circle endlessly, hoping to snag one of these treasured slots. Now, all of them were taken and there was no sign of backup lights to suggest a vacancy coming due.
I trotted into the empty lane and scanned the straight-away that shot to the far end of the garage, where a shadowy two-lane ramp curved up to the street level above. The space was illuminated by a series of flat florescent fixtures, mounted against the low concrete ceiling. There was no sound of running footsteps. Cars entered and departed at a regular intervals. Ingress was impeded by the need to push a button and wait for an automated ticket to emerge from the slot. Egress was governed by the need to surrender that same ticket on exiting, pausing long enough for the attendant to check the date-and-time stamp to see if parking fees were due. To my right was the nearest exit, a short upward incline that spilled out onto Chapel Street. The sign posted at the top read 'Watch for Pedestrians. No left turn.' As I waited, two cars passed me, one coming down the ramp, the other on its way up. I gave the departing driver a quick look, but she wasn't the woman I was looking for.
I heard a car engine spark to life. I squinted and tilted my head as I tried to track the sound to its origin. In the arti-ficial light of the garage with its gloomy acres of concrete, it was almost impossible to pinpoint. I turned and looked behind me, where twenty feet away, I caught the wink of red tail lights and a white flash of back-up lights. A black Mercedes sedan accelerated out of the slot, swung sharply, and careened backwards in my direction. The younger woman had an arm over the front seat, zeroing in on me, the car zigzagging as she corrected her aim. The rear of the Mercedes fish-tailed and bore down on me with surprising speed. I leapt between two parked cars, banging my shin against the front bumper of one. I stumbled and toppled sideways, extending my right hand in hopes of breaking my fall. I went down on one shoulder and then staggered to my feet again.
The woman rammed the gear into drive and took off with a chirp of her tires. Of necessity, she slowed at the kiosk, handing over her ticket while I limped gamely after her with no hope of catching up. The attendant glanced at her ticket and waved her on, apparently unaware that she'd just tried to run me down. The traffic arm lifted and the woman sent me a satisfied smile as she sailed up the ramp and hung a left at the street.
Wincing, I stopped and leaned over, putting my hands on my knees. I realized belatedly that my right palm was badly scraped and bleeding. My right shin throbbed and I knew I'd be nursing a nasty bruise and a knot along the bone.
I looked up as a man approached and handed me my shoulder bag, looking at me with concern. "Are you all right? That woman nearly hit you."
"I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
"You want me to notify mall security? You really ought to file a report."
I shook my head. "Did you catch the license plate?"
"Well, no, but she was driving a Lincoln Continental. Dark blue, if that helps."
I said, "Good call. Thanks."
As soon as he was gone, I pulled myself together and went in search of my car. My shin throbbed and the palm of my hand stung where grit was embedded in the wound. I'd gained precious little for the price I'd paid. I'd identified the black Mercedes, but completely missed the plate number. Shit.