The Last Place You Look
July 7, 1976
Frank Harriman and his partner were on a break, sitting in a Denny’s. Waiting for desperately needed coffee, he spoke into his handheld cassette tape recorder, making notes from their last call to help him with the inevitable paperwork.
“Altercation began when Mr. Martin threw a plastic bag filled with excrement—allegedly left by Mr. Jackson’s dog on Mr. Martin’s lawn—onto Mr. Jackson’s front porch. The bag broke on landing. . . .”
He glanced up to see a look of horror on his partner’s face. Jimmy Chao had only been with the Bakersfield Police Department six months longer than Frank. And based on his expression, Frank was pretty sure someone must have walked into Denny’s with a sawed-off shotgun and was aiming it at the back of his head.
Then Jimmy whispered, “Dude. The radio!” He pointed to Frank’s hand.
Frank then realized that there was no one with a shotgun. His own worst enemy was in the booth: Frank himself, too tired to think straight.
He wasn’t talking into his tape recorder. He was talking into his radio unit. And he had just entertained everyone on duty in Bakersfield with details of the dispute between the drunken neighbors.
“Uh . . . 10-22,” Frank muttered into the radio. Disregard.
He could already hear the clicks of radio buttons being hit on and off, the others indicating laughter.
They were going to give him more shit than Mr. Jackson had on his front porch.
• • •
As they drove back to headquarters at the end of their shift, Jimmy tried to console him. “Stuff like this happens to every rookie. If we do something in a ridiculous way just once, that will be the moment the whole world is watching. Hell, it even happens to the old-timers. You ever hear anyone say, ‘I just about Blanked myself’?”
“My dad told me about Eric Blank.”
“Yeah, that’s right—I guess you’ve already heard all those stories.”
Frank thought about his dad, also a member of the Bakersfield PD, hearing about his fuckup, and his stomach clenched. His dad wouldn’t chew him out or anything like that. He would be calm. And hiding his embarrassment. Which was worse.
“I haven’t heard all of them,” Frank said, thinking of a few new stories his training officer had shared with him. “But I did hear about the night Blank overestimated his sphincter’s endurance rating.”
“Too long in the car,” Jimmy said, nodding. “Could happen to anyone: long shift, radio call to radio call. But Blank not only crapped himself, he went into the restroom of a 7-Eleven, lowered his pants, and used his tactical knife to cut his underwear off himself.”
“Really don’t want to talk about this before eating breakfast,” Frank said.
“You’re the one who just broadcast a report about dog shit.”
“Yeah. Didn’t need a reminder about that, either.”
They rode in silence for a few minutes, then Jimmy, who was driving, pulled over and said, “Listen. First time I was patrolling solo, just a few weeks before you graduated, it happened to be a rainy Friday night. Being the new guy, when a roadkill call came in, I was sent to do the pickup. Big Irish setter, although you could hardly tell what it was at that point.”
Frank decided it would be useless to remind him about breakfast again.
“So, have you done animal pickup yet?” Chao asked.
“Awful, isn’t it?”
“Okay, so you know that you’re supposed to take the carcass to the walk-in freezer at animal control, put it in one of those big fifty-five-gallon drums, and get the hell out, because the stench in there gets into the wool of your uniform and reminds you of the entire experience for the rest of your shift.”
Frank nodded. Definitely no breakfast. Chao was probably doing this to him on purpose. Then again, Chao could be socially clueless.
“So I’m alone on a rainy Friday night, dragging this big damned dog carcass into the freezer, and I can’t find a drum with enough room in it for him. It’s midnight, I’m looking into these god-awful drums, and it’s freaking my shit out. Plus, the smell. I’m about to shoot my cookies. So I leave the fucking dog on the floor and run out.” Jimmy sighed gustily.
“Animal control complained?” Frank asked.
“Of course. I had to go back on Monday and deal with it.”
“I don’t blame them. Wet dog, freezer floor, and fifty or sixty hours of elapsed time.”
“The dog froze to the floor.”
“You should try for detective.”
It was, in fact, what he dreamed of doing—but today wasn’t going to get him any closer to that goal.
• • •
After the shift, Frank wasn’t entirely surprised to find a paper bag filled with dog shit in his locker.
• • •
The razzing hadn’t let up much a week later. It hadn’t taken long for the others to realize that a bag of crap wasn’t going to do great things for the locker room’s shared air quality, though, so giving him shit began to take less literal forms. His superiors were giving him all the worst jobs, his fellow officers were still raising their hands at the end of briefings and asking, “Can we hear from Harriman about everything that happened on his last shift?”
All of this made him suspicious, one afternoon, of his training officer’s grin. Gregory “Bear” Bradshaw didn’t temper his enjoyment as he said, “This sounds like a job right up your alley.”
The dispatcher had sent them to an address where they were to take a missing persons report from Mrs. Frieda Sarton.
“Is there something funny about a missing persons report?” Frank asked.
“Oh, no. We have to take Mrs. Sarton seriously.”
Frank decided silence was his best option. Bear was gregarious by nature, so Frank was pretty sure he could wait him out.
They pulled up to the curb in front of a large, old, two-story, Craftsman-style home at the edge of town. The suburbs were moving toward it, but hadn’t reached it yet. Frank was tempted to ask if it was really within the city limits—if it wasn’t, the missing persons case was the problem of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. But that would have been a stupid rookie question. Dispatch wouldn’t have sent them out of their jurisdiction. Bear wouldn’t have had that look of someone handing off a snakes-in-a-can gag gift, gleefully anticipating the moment the lid would be removed.
The spacious lot was surrounded by a graying picket fence. The front lawn was more brown than green but otherwise cared for. A large tree shaded the sidewalk and house. The shady, wraparound porch reminded him of the one at his parents’ house—there was a big wooden swing in front of one large window. Venetian blinds covered all the windows, slats closed.
There was a pale yellow Cadillac parked under a bougainvillea-covered pergola that served as a carport. Farther up a long concrete drive stood an old garage, one that looked as if it had been designed to shelter horses and a carriage.
An elderly, frail woman in a floral print housedress came out to stand on the porch.
“You ought to be able to handle this on your own,” Bear said, waving to the woman. She waved back timidly, elbow held to her side, fingers giving a slight flutter before she looked down and away, waiting.
Wondering when the hell all this hazing would end, Frank stepped out of the patrol car and approached the house. When he was within a couple of yards from the porch, the old woman took a step back, as if afraid of him.
He stopped, smiled, relaxed his posture, and shut out all thoughts of being irritated with Bear. That wasn’t fair to this old lady. “Good afternoon. Are you Mrs. Sarton?”
“I’m Officer Harriman. Did you call to make a missing persons report?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “My husband. Could you please try to find him?”
“I’ll do what I can. Do you want to talk out here?”
She nodded, seeming relieved. She motioned to the swing. He was half-afraid the thing would collapse, but as he sat gingerly on it, he found it was sturdy, and the eyebolts that attached it to the porch roof seemed likely to hold. The air was cool, here on the porch. Maybe not as cool as it was in the patrol car, with the windows up and the air conditioner on, but this was better than standing out in the sun.
Mrs. Sarton sat as far away from him as she could on the swing, but her posture relaxed a little.
He took out a notebook. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “What’s your husband’s name?”
“I already told the other officers, including that one there.” She lifted the tip of her index finger to indicate Bear. It was the slightest of gestures, made as if she didn’t want Bear to see her pointing him out.
“I’m new on the job,” he said. “Maybe you could act as if I’m the first person who ever heard about this.”
She nodded. “Thought so. The others think it’s funny.” She paused, then said with surprising fierceness, “It’s not funny at all.”
Frank believed her, but at the same time, he knew there was something about all of this that Bear and the others found laughable, crazy, worthy of ridicule. He wasn’t even close to seeing what that was, but he felt a sudden fear that she would say something to him that would make him laugh. And knew that it was the one thing he shouldn’t do, especially not in her presence.
Frank had been raised around cops. Bear and others who had worked with his dad had been regular guests in the Harriman home over the years. They were family. So he had an appreciation of cop humor, and considered it essential to staying sane on the job. But there were rules—at least among the kind of officers he wanted to emulate. You didn’t use that humor to ridicule the vulnerable while they were asking for your help.
What had happened here? What had made the others treat this as a joke case?
“No, there’s nothing at all funny about a missing person,” Frank said. “I’m sorry if anyone gave you the impression that it is. But because I’m so new, I’ll need your help.”
She nodded again. “My husband, Derek Sarton, D-E-R-E-K S-A-R-T-O-N, is missing. Here are a few photos of him.”
She handed him a set of photos that she had clearly prepared in advance. One showed a tall, heavyset bald man in a Hawaiian print shirt, black shorts, and sandals. He was tanned and smiling as he lifted some beverage in a martini glass toward the camera. Frank guessed he was in his late fifties or early sixties. Another showed him in a group of men in suits. He was younger, with more hair and less weight. It was a business photo, some kind of groundbreaking ceremony, next to a sign that said, “Future Home of Sarton Industries.” The third was of a couple with a young son. They were well-dressed, including the boy, who looked to be about ten. Sarton was a handsome man, probably in his midthirties, and petite Mrs. Sarton appeared to be near the same age. Judging by the clothing and hairstyles, the photo had been taken in the 1940s.
“Thank you. When did you last see Mr. Sarton?” he asked.
“It was Halloween.”
“About eight months ago?” He thought he could figure it out now. Mrs. Sarton probably constantly pestered the detective who had taken on the case. The case was as cold as a cod’s belly and Frank had been sent here for “goodwill,” to keep the citizen happy. Empty public relations for a case unlikely to receive any other department time and energy.
“No,” she said. “Not quite six years ago.”
“Six years?” He managed not to shout it.
“October 31, 1970.”
He glanced at Bear, still in the car. Saw him laughing.
Frank wrote the date down in his notebook. “Tell me about it.”
She teared up. “You aren’t going to leave? That’s all I usually get to say before they say something rude to me and leave.”
“I’m staying here to listen to you until I’m ordered to do otherwise.”
She smiled at him. “Bless you, Officer Harriman!”
“I don’t want to get your hopes up,” he said quickly. “You’ve made a report before, right?”
“Yes, although I don’t believe any real effort was made to find him. Detective Pointe told me that Derek probably just wanted to get away from me.”
“He said that?” Pointe was an ass. Frank knew few departments gave missing persons cases to anyone for whom they had high expectations. You could see the pasture from most missing persons desks. Pointe, who would put more effort into avoiding work than the work itself would have cost him, was not the pride of the department.
“Not at first,” she admitted. “I think I annoyed him. Even my son told me to give up and stop bothering the police.”
“Is your son at home now?” Frank asked.
“Harold?” She hesitated, then said, “Well, I hope so, but I’m not sure that’s possible. If by ‘home’ you mean heaven. But maybe he asked for forgiveness at the last. Not for me to judge.”
“Your son is deceased?”
He noticed that she didn’t seem too broken up about it. “Is there a reason you doubt . . . uh . . . where he ended up?”
“Of course. I’m quite sure he killed his father. Or helped his wife to do it.”
Frank cursed silently. Either this was much bigger than he’d thought—way too big for a rookie—or she was delusional and nothing he said or did would matter much. She didn’t seem crazy, though, just a little odd. In his few months on the job, he had already realized that he was going to be spending much more time as a half-assed mental health worker than he had expected, but he definitely wasn’t prepared to assess a situation like this.
He looked over at Bear again, then back to Mrs. Sarton. “Did I mention that I’m new to the job?”
She glanced toward the black-and-white, then added, “Yes, you did, a few times. I suppose the fact that you’re not like that jaded fellow over there is why I’m comfortable talking with you. Why don’t you come into the house? It’s a complicated story, but I’ll try to explain it all to you, Officer Harriman.”
What did he have to lose? “Sure.”
She pulled out a set of keys and began unlocking dead bolts. Six of them.
A seventh key unlocked the door itself.
She paused, then turned to him. “My home isn’t a mess, exactly, but I never let anyone in here. I hope you’ll forgive the condition of the living room. And it’s an old house that has belonged to three generations of old people, so we’ve each added a layer of things to it, I’m afraid.”
Thinking of his mother, who had placed ceramic frogs and other knickknacks on virtually every surface of their home, he said, “Please don’t worry about it.”
As soon as he said that, he found himself hoping she wasn’t talking about a situation more along the lines of the home of his mother’s sister, Aunt Alice, the super pack rat. Much to the family’s dismay, Aunt Alice had been in the news over it.
He looked toward Bear, who was now frowning. Fine. Frank smiled and gave him a thumbs-up, then followed Mrs. Sarton into her home.
He was relieved. Like his mom’s living room and dining room, these rooms had shelves and side tables loaded with knickknacks, although most of Mrs. Sarton’s looked considerably older and more expensive than ceramic frogs. There were pictures of elegantly dressed men and women. A few of Mrs. Sarton showed her in stylish clothes. All were placed in neatly arranged groups. This house was orderly and clean.
Still, one wall of the living room had about thirty cardboard boxes lined up on it. They were tidily stacked and labeled, but each label was printed only with a series of numbers, using some kind of system that didn’t give him any clue as to their contents.
Well, at least it was cooler in here than on the porch.
“Have a seat, Officer Harriman,” she said, gesturing toward the dining room table. “May I offer you a glass of iced tea or a soda?”
“I’m fine, thank you. But please get something for yourself if you’d like.”
She shook her head, and when he pulled out a chair for her to be seated first, she said, “Congratulate your mother for me. You have excellent manners.”
“Thank you. I’ll tell her you said so.” He sat across from her and took his notebook out again.
She sighed. “I’ll try to tell it as simply as I can. My grandparents were successful in the oil business. I was their only grandchild. I still earn money from their interest in certain wells. I inherited enough money from my grandmother’s estate to make me quite the prize. I could have had any one of a number of decent men who courted me, I suppose, but I fell for a bit of a bad boy, as foolish girls do. I hadn’t yet gained complete control over that money, which turned out for the best.
“My father realized I was going to marry Derek come hell or high water, and so he made a bargain with Derek. He made a complicated arrangement to help my husband start a furniture manufacturing business just before we married in 1925. My father hoped to protect me, and to make me think twice about what I would do with the money in my grandparents’ trust.”
“Do you have funds of your own, completely under your own control?”
“Yes, but most of it is protected by the trust. My father invested his own money in the business, and then his interest in the company came to me. I don’t want to make it sound as if money was all there was to our marriage, or that all the money we had came from my family. Far from it. Derek achieved as much as he did through hard work. We diversified. The business did well. Well enough to survive the Depression and to expand during the war.
“We opened other locations. We bought a big house in Los Angeles, but we kept this home, which had belonged to my grandparents. It’s paid for, and we both liked Bakersfield. Our only child, Harold, was born here in 1930.
“When my husband reached the age of sixty, he decided to retire. Harold was thirty-five and had been raised in the business, but I wasn’t sure he was ready to lead it. Still, Derek and I kept peace over the years by not interfering with each other, and he did the day-to-day running of the business. So when Derek said he wanted Harold to take over, he took over. We moved back here. We could have gone anywhere, but as I said, we liked it here.”
“So what year was that?”
“We moved back in 1965. We still owned the company, although Harold received a generous salary. I kept thinking it was nice to be back in a place where it was quiet and there wasn’t so much traffic.”
“I take it Harold stayed in LA?”
“Yes. Harold married his secretary that year. Evelyn. Never liked her, but he was a grown man, free to do as he pleased. I could hardly hold my own marriage up as an example, so I kept my mouth shut. We rarely saw them.
“As for the company, things seemed to go along fine for the first four or five years. I thought I might have misjudged Harold, at least in some ways. Then in 1970, in early October, Derek received a call from the head of accounting, saying Harold had fired him, and that Derek needed to get someone in there to watch over things, because Evelyn had Harold completely under her spell.”
A twinkle came into her eye and she said in a low voice, “You know, men like to believe witchcraft is involved, when all that’s really happened is that they’ve started thinking with something a little south of their belly buttons.”
Frank laughed, and she smiled back at him.
“Well,” she continued, “we already knew Evelyn dominated him, and had from the start. After hearing from the accountant, though, Derek called Harold to ask what the devil was going on. Harold became defensive and gave Derek an ultimatum, saying Derek needed to decide if he was really retired or else come back in and work, and if he was coming back, Harold would resign. Derek had always spoiled Harold, and he caved in to that threat. And besides, he was enjoying being retired. In some ways more than others.”
“He had found himself a floozy out here. She wasn’t the first, and she wouldn’t have been the last, but he didn’t want to break things off with her.”
“You weren’t upset about that?”
“I got upset the first time I found out about one of his flings. That was in 1930, when I was pregnant with Harold. I won’t trouble you with all the sordid details of my marriage, Officer Harriman. I’ll just say that after that day, Derek and I slept separately.” She paused. “No, I’ll add that Derek doted on his son and was a charming, intelligent man. He knew how to make me laugh and how to make me forgive him, at least to some extent. We were compatible in our strange way. After forty years of being married to a man I knew to be a tomcat, I wasn’t in any position to start making a fuss. Nor had any desire to do so.”
“Do you mind if I ask why not?”
“I had an independent life. I could travel where I wanted to, take up whatever interested me, and I knew he would raise no objections. I know the women in your generation expect that, but most women in mine did not. I played the corporate wife to perfection when Derek needed me to, in large part because the success of the company helped me to live a comfortable life.”
“Didn’t it hurt?”
“The first times, terribly. But then . . . I realized that Derek loved being in love. The passionate, early days of it. So he’d have a crush on this one or that one, but I was the only one he kept in his life over those years. I don’t delude myself. We were comfortable with each other, but he stayed for completely mercenary reasons, of course.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mentioned the complicated agreement? There was a contract signed before the marriage. My father owned most of the company. His interest in it had since come to me, and his lawyers made sure it came to me individually. It’s not community property. Derek’s percentage still gave him substantial wealth, but he would have lived a very different lifestyle without me.”
“So your son and daughter-in-law were ruining the company, but your husband was too busy having an affair to do anything about it?”
“Not for long. Derek decided he’d had enough. One day he rented a U-Haul, hired a couple of helpers, and made the two-hour drive down to our plant in LA.”
“When was that?”
“Friday, October 16, 1970. He came back late that same night. He was all worked up. Told me he had gone in and raided the offices. Took out boxes and boxes of paperwork from around the time his accountant had been fired. Some other things, too—chemicals and tools. Drove back up here and put them in the garage. Some he brought into the house.” She pointed to the boxes in the living room. “Made me mad as a hornet. He had the whole garage and a couple of the upstairs rooms all to himself. Why did he need to clutter up my living room? Anyway, I soon forgot all about that, because when he came back from returning the U-Haul, he told me he was going to fire Harold, and maybe even have him arrested.”
“Said Harold had been embezzling from us. That he’d been using cheaper chemicals that didn’t come from good sources, and gave the workers inferior tools to use. But he made it look on the books as if nothing had changed. Derek was going to go through everything and find out exactly what Harold had done.”
She sighed. “He started to go through the ones in here. Then Harold showed up the next day, and the two of them went out drinking, and next thing I knew, Derek came back home and said everything was going to be okay. I asked how. He said he had worked things out with Harold and wouldn’t say more.
“When I pressed him, he said news of havey-cavey stuff would be bad for the business. That made sense, but I didn’t like the fact that as usual, Harold would pay no penalty for wrongdoing. Derek asked me if I wanted to see my son in prison. He said Harold had made a bad marriage, and all of this was Evelyn’s fault. I didn’t say anything, and he got mad at me and went over to Marlena’s place. His mistress’s apartment.”
“You knew who he was seeing?”
“Oh yes. Marlena Gray. I’m not sure it’s her real name, though.”
“You said you last saw him on Halloween?”
“Yes. Two weeks had gone by since he made that first trip to LA. He had started going through the papers here, and before long he was mad at Harold again. One morning, Derek told me he was going to go back down to LA again to tell Harold he had to rehire the accountant and kick Evelyn out. We argued over whether or not that was the best thing to do, and he told me not to wait up for him. I’d heard that plenty of times over the previous four decades. That night, I guess it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I told him maybe he should take his girlfriend with him. He said maybe he would, and maybe he wouldn’t bother coming back. He’d said that before, too. Usually I’d say something in protest, but that time, I didn’t.”
She sounded remorseful and depressed. She fell silent.
Frank waited. His dad had once told him that the ideal rookie would be an alien with excellent eyesight, giant ears, and no mouth.
Suddenly, Mrs. Sarton sat up straight in her chair. She came to her feet and marched over to a big bay window, then yanked open its largest blind. As the blind flew up, Bear’s face appeared on the other side of the glass.
Startled, Bear jumped back, then turned bright red with embarrassment. Frank, who had reflexively stood from the moment she rose, struggled mightily for self-control.
“Shame on you!” Mrs. Sarton shouted through the glass. “Shame on you!” She brushed one forefinger along the other in the time-honored gesture.
Under other circumstances, that would have made Frank lose it. But he saw that she had started crying, and lost the urge to laugh. He put an arm around her thin shoulders and turned her away from the window, and scowled at Bear—who scowled back, but slunk off toward the picket fence. Frank guided Mrs. Sarton back to her chair.
She pulled a delicate handkerchief out of one of her pockets and tried to regain her self-control as she wiped her face. For a time, she just cried harder. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she kept saying.
“I suspect you’re overdue for a good cry. Don’t worry about me. I grew up with two sisters. Tears don’t freak me out.”
She laughed at that, and sighed gustily. “Oh, thank you. I guess I did need that cry. Lord, I’m tired of living like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Afraid. Locks and alarms and all that. I might as well have gone missing. In some ways, I have—I’ve gone missing inside this house. I’m alone too much. I know it, but I just can’t seem to make myself do anything.” She looked down at her dress. “Look at me. I used to take great care with my appearance. Now, I’m just a fright. I go nowhere, see no one. I leave boxes in the living room and I haven’t gone into my own garage in years. A mouse has more nerve than I do. I’m a frightened recluse, cowering in my own home.”
“Maybe that can change.”
She didn’t say anything for a while. He stayed quiet.
Finally she said, “To go back to that night, Halloween, Derek left here at about five. You’ve probably noticed that we’re off the beaten path for trick-or-treaters, so that night, when I unexpectedly got a call from a friend inviting me out to dinner, I accepted. I was tempted to tell her about my problems, but instead I listened to hers. It was a good distraction, but after a couple of hours I tired of it and—over her protests—I told her I was going home.
“When I got back here, it was about ten o’clock, and I was surprised to find one of the company trucks parked in the driveway, back open, ramp down, and empty. The lights were on in the garage. At first, I thought it was Derek, delivering another load of documents to the garage, but then I saw a man wearing dark clothing. It was Harold. He had one of the big fifty-five-gallon drums on a dolly. I realized that I had come home just in time to see Harold breaking into the garage. He was trying to steal things back. And Evelyn was with him. She was carrying a stack of boxes.”
“How did they respond to being caught?”
“Oh, I scared Harold half to death. He was so startled to see me, he actually gave a little scream. And he looked very shaken. I mean, he really couldn’t explain himself, could he? He moved it back in—which wasn’t all that easy, the garage was packed with Derek’s things and all the stuff he had brought home from the company. But Harold managed to do it, then he tried to tell me that he and his father had talked things out and that all was fine, and he was just going to take back all of the things his dad had brought out here.
“Evelyn has always been bold and brassy, and while I was telling him that I’d have to hear from his father before I could let them take anything, she acted as if she’d just as soon clobber me with those boxes.
“Harold stepped between us and told her to let him handle things, that she had caused enough problems. I stopped her from taking the boxes with her—she was unhappy about that. But she set the boxes down on the drum and went out to the van.
“Harold argued with me some more, then I explained to him that I separately owned most of the company and could sell it out from under him—something that seemed to surprise him, so I suppose Derek hadn’t let him in on that little detail. So he gave up. I made him lock up the garage and give me the keys he had used to get into it. I told him to leave.”
“Yes, but not before he hinted threats. I told him that I had already arranged things so that if anything happened to me, the company would be sold and the proceeds donated to the United Negro College Fund, and everything in my trust would go to it as well. He was a bit of a racist, so that cooked his goose.”
“Had you made that arrangement?”
“Yes. It’s an excellent cause. Besides, you don’t think I’d lie to my own son, do you?”
“No, ma’am, I don’t. Did you ever reconcile with him?”
“Oh yes, but not immediately. In fact, at first, things got worse. When I didn’t hear from Derek after about four days, I became worried. He had stayed away a couple of days at a time, but never longer than that. I thought he was probably especially angry with me, but when he hadn’t been home in five days, I called Harold to ask if his father had been in touch. He seemed upset and said, ‘Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but he’s left you. He’s run off with Marlena Gray.’ ”
“Did you believe him?”
“Not for a minute. Impossible! It wasn’t Derek’s way. Even if he had left me, he wouldn’t leave his company. When Harold told me that he hadn’t heard from him since Halloween, I was very worried. I became quite bold. I looked up Marlena Gray in the phone book, but when I called the number, it was disconnected. There was an address listed for her in the phone book, so I drove over to her apartment. It was in a big building, but I worked up my nerve and knocked. No one answered the door. I kept knocking. Eventually the building manager came by—he was making his rounds and heard me knocking, so he came over to ask if I was interested in renting the apartment. When I told him I was looking for Miss Gray, he told me Marlena had moved.”
“That’s what I asked. He said, ‘Halloween. No notice, so she kissed her security deposit good-bye, but I guess her rich boyfriend is going to take care of that.’ He told me that she had left so many of her belongings behind, the place could be rented furnished. Then to top everything off on a perfectly horrible day, he said, ‘Say, you aren’t her mother or anything like that, are you?’
“I was happy to tell him no, but I was thoroughly discouraged. The police later told me that her suitcases, clothing, and personal items were missing from the apartment, and that a neighbor had heard her talking with someone in the afternoon, and the door opening and closing. That further convinced Detective Pointe that she had left with Derek.”
“What about Derek’s car? Is it missing, too?”
She shook her head. “It was found parked near Union Station in Los Angeles, but no one remembers seeing them board a train.”
“When did you call the police to report that Derek was missing?”
She stood, went over to a telephone in a small alcove and opened the built-in drawer beneath it. She brought out three clothbound journals and handed them to him.
“I wrote down everything I could remember about those weeks, from Derek discovering the problem at the company, Harold and Evelyn’s break-in, and so on. I have listed all of Derek’s banking and credit card information, a physical description of him, a list of his hobbies and interests, where his dental records can be found, and even his blood type. I’ve logged all my calls, with the date, time, who spoke to me, what they said, and so on.”
“I want to look through these, but tell me the short version of what happened.”
“Everyone believed my husband and I had an argument, and he ran off with his mistress. The police talked to three friends of Marlena Gray, and all of them said that she had called them on Halloween, excited, saying good-bye, telling them she and Derek planned to just disappear in a way that my ‘fancy lawyers’ couldn’t do anything about. Derek and Marlena wouldn’t leave a trail, they’d just go out of the country, using cash Derek had been squirreling away for years, hoping to escape me. And I would be ‘screwed over,’ as she put it, because I wouldn’t be able to touch his assets for at least seven years, and maybe by then he’d divorce me.”
She smiled wryly. “Yes. Wow. Harold and Evelyn claimed he’d told them the same thing. Halloween was on a Saturday, and although Derek and Evelyn admitted that he had met them at the factory, they claimed he did so to tell them that he was running away with his mistress. He had supposedly been secretive, but told them that much of his plans because he didn’t want them to worry about him.”
She shook her head. “Fools. I showed them that even with Derek unavailable, I could do things with the company. I fired both of them. I had the place searched, looking for some clue to Derek’s whereabouts. That came to nothing. I rehired the accountant. He still runs the company and does a fine job of it.”
“I’m kind of surprised you were able to patch things up with your son after all of that.”
“We never did so completely, but things did improve. Harold and Evelyn ran out of money, and wanted to make peace. I agreed to talk to Harold, and to help him out, on the condition that he would not mention Derek to me. I wouldn’t let him come here—I met him in town and had this place watched while we went out to a restaurant for lunch. Sure enough, while we were having lunch, Evelyn tried to break in. I nearly had her arrested for it, but in the end I was so tired of legal hassles I just let her know that she wouldn’t get away with it a second time.”
“Did Harold seem to know about her plan to break in?”
“No, he seemed angry and embarrassed. I didn’t know if he was acting or if that was what he genuinely felt, though. This goes back to why we never completely worked things out. I didn’t trust my own son. It’s one thing to think your child has some wrongheaded ideas. Or to have a clash of personalities. These things happen in families. But every time I met him, I kept thinking that he had probably killed his father, and that the proof was somewhere in these boxes, or out in the garage. I gave him more than enough money to live on, but at the same time I had all those locks put on the front door and an alarm system installed on the house. Still, I knew if they ever really wanted in here, they would probably find a way.”
“I’m sorry you had to fear him.”
“Mostly I feared Evelyn, but yes, him as well. Suspecting a family member in this way is poisonous. It long ago deadened a part of me toward my son, and no mother should experience that, but plenty do. We tried to find a way, especially not long before he died. We were never again as close as we once were, though. Then late last year he suddenly became ill and died. Kidney failure. Evelyn is supposed to benefit from a large insurance policy, but my understanding is that the insurance company has some questions about his death.”
He glanced up to see Bear getting out of the car.
Frank held the journals toward her. “Would you be willing to make copies of these for me?”
She hesitated, then said, “You may take them with you.”
“I have a confession,” she said. “I was hoping you would be the one who responded today.”
He didn’t hide his confusion. “What?”
“I follow any news about the Bakersfield Police Department very closely. I read about the murder at the trailer park. That you were the one who didn’t take things at face value. I read about the indictment of Chief Cross—”
“Mrs. Sarton, please don’t think all that happened because of me. A seasoned homicide detective was kind enough to listen to a rookie. It was his case, not mine. As for the former chief, I shouldn’t even be talking about that, and he’s innocent until proven guilty. A case has been brought against him, and if that makes you happy, there are detectives and investigators from the state attorney general’s office who get that credit. A newspaper reporter found the tapes. It’s nothing to do with me, really. People have been working on this for longer than I’ve even been an officer. In fact, I should leave these here and ask a detective to come by and talk to you. If I take them, I have to check them into evidence, and . . . and—”
“Say no more. I understand that the cleanup of the department is still under way.” She sighed. “Well, it was worth a try, and you’ve listened to me longer than anyone else in the police department has. Thank you for that.”
It irritated him. He didn’t want to promise her he would be back, because she probably wouldn’t believe him. And who could blame her? But what more could he do?
He heard Bear knocking on the door. She went to answer it. He followed her. Bear was probably ready to make him run behind the squad car.
As he passed the boxes, and thought of the overfull garage, he found himself thinking of Jimmy Chao’s story. “Mrs. Sarton!”
She turned back to him.
“Have you gone through these boxes or looked through the ones in the garage?”
“No. I haven’t touched anything. I haven’t been in my own garage since the night I made Harold put that drum back. Not to make you think I’m another Miss Havisham, but little has changed in here since that day. When a person is missing, even if you know in your mind that most likely they are dead, your heart tells you to hope. It causes you to become superstitious, to want not to change anything, not to send any signal to the universe at large that you are leaving the missing one behind and moving on—one moment, Officer Bradshaw!”
This last was in response to much louder knocking, the type that says you don’t want things to escalate to the next level.
When she unlocked the last lock and opened the door, Frank spoke before Bear could say anything. “We need to check something in the garage.”
Bear stared at him for a moment, then said in the tone you use to calm a maniac, “All right—”
“The garage!” Mrs. Sarton said. “I . . . I—”
“You trust me,” Frank said, “or you don’t.”
She took a resolute breath. “Let me get the keys.”
She went back to the drawer beneath the telephone.
As they walked down the driveway, Bear signaled to him to let Mrs. Sarton get ahead of them, and when she was out of earshot, asked, “Mind filling me in? I don’t want to trouble you, you understand, but—”
So Frank summarized as quickly as he could.
“Okay, but why are we going into the garage?”
“When she surprised her son on Halloween, what if Harold wasn’t taking a fifty-five-gallon drum out? What if he was placing one in here instead?”
Bear shuddered, then said, “Might be another stinker. God, I hate summer.” He fished his keys out of his pocket and handed them to Frank. “Run to the car and get two pairs of gloves and the camera. You have your flashlight?”
“Yes!” Frank said, insulted.
“I assume nothing. You would benefit from the same philosophy.”
By the time Frank came back, Bear was working on a heavy padlock that was fastened through a hasp and staple, the second of two locks that secured the wooden carriage-style doors.
“The night you caught your son and daughter-in-law in here,” Bear asked Mrs. Sarton, “were they using flashlights or were the overhead lights on?”
“The overhead lights were on.”
“Hmm.” He kept concentrating on the lock. Just when Frank thought he should offer to run back to the car for the bolt cutters, the padlock made a satisfying click and released.
“I thought for sure I was going to break the key off in that thing,” Bear said. “All right. Nobody steps into the garage but me, understood?”
Frank and Mrs. Sarton nodded.
Bear pulled the doors open, and sunlight flooded into the packed garage. Stepping inside wasn’t really possible—there was about a foot of cleared space that allowed access to the light switch, but that was about it. Bear left the lights off. The sunlight allowed him to take lots of photos of the front of the garage without using a flash.
When he had satisfied himself that he had taken enough of them, he asked, “Which drum?”
There were three rows of black fifty-five-gallon drums near the front of the garage.
“I’m not sure,” she said shakily.
Bear stooped to read labels. “Most of these are formaldehyde.”
“Used to make particleboard furniture,” she said.
“You said Evelyn put a stack of boxes on top of the one Harold had moved,” Frank said. There were several drums that had boxes on top of them, but only one of those was in the front row. He pointed that one out. “This one?”
“I think so. I can’t really remember, but . . . I don’t remember Harold moving the boxes after she set them down. I’m sorry, I was focused more on Harold and Evelyn than I was on things in the garage.”
“Did you happen to notice if either of them wore gloves?”
She frowned in concentration. “No, I don’t think so. I’m sure I would have noticed anything so odd.”
Bear sent Frank a look. Frank said to Mrs. Sarton, “He’s going to open up the drum, and it could be pretty bad when he does. You sure you want to be out here?”
Without touching it any more than absolutely necessary, Bear used his gloved hands to move the stack of boxes to the ground, then tried to budge the drum away from the others. He couldn’t move it. So he stood blocking their view and opened the catch on the metal ring that sealed the drum. He opened the lid so that neither Frank nor Mrs. Sarton could see into it. He grimaced as a strong odor of formaldehyde filled the air, grimaced again at the contents, and put the lid down. “Everybody out,” he said.
Mrs. Sarton had a look of shock on her face. “What? What have you found? Is it Derek?” she asked in near hysteria. “Derek out here all these years?”
“No, it’s not him,” Bear said, “but we’re going to have to let the coroner and the detectives take it from here. I think we may have found his girlfriend. Know anything about that?”
She turned paler still and shook her head mutely.
Frank walked her back to the house. “Anyone you would like to call to be here with you?” he asked.
She came out of her stunned state enough to stare at him.
She made him wonder if telepathy worked after all when she said, “My lawyer. I must call my lawyer.”
If he was the only member of the department who would be pleased that she would have legal representation, he could live with it. He couldn’t believe Mrs. Sarton was a murderer.
Not even after a second drum in the garage was shown to contain the well-preserved body of Derek Sarton.
• • •
Ike Tucker and John Mattson caught the case. Mrs. Sarton’s lawyer arrived shortly after they did. Since he wouldn’t make Mrs. Sarton available to them, they grilled Frank about everything she had said to him.
“You know she tried to say all this to you guys for years,” Frank said.
“Pointe,” they said in unison.
“He’s not the only person she tried to talk to.”
“No,” Mattson said, “but he’s territorial. He does just enough to be able to say he did what he was required to do.”
Tucker added, “Missing persons isn’t the right job for him, although I can’t say I know what is. I wouldn’t want the job myself. Most of the time, a missing adult, it’s someone who’s out banging his girlfriend in a no-tell motel and loses track of time. Wife calls in worried and everybody ends up embarrassed and mad at us.
“Or the missing person has good or bad reasons to want to disappear. Waste of our limited resources to go chasing after them, especially since it’s not a crime to be missing.
“Other than that, it’s a runaway teenager who is tired of hiding from Creepy Uncle Ernie. Or being hit by Dad. Or getting the younger kids off to school while Mom sleeps off last night’s bender.”
Frank shook his head. “So Pointe believed this man with no debts ran away from a marriage he had been in for forty-five years? A marriage with a tolerant—overly tolerant, some would say—wife who supported him in a luxurious lifestyle. Disappears after threatening to take back management of his company. Does that sound like it should have raised a question or two?”
“Pointe’s pulling the file for us, but he told us that in addition to the family members, he had three other witnesses who said the girlfriend told them it was in the works.”
“Anyone know anything about these three friends of Marlena Gray? Or where they are now?”
“We’ll be looking for them,” Mattson said. “Don’t try to teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”
“Yeah, well. In case I forgot to say it—nice work.”
Frank thanked him, but felt uneasy. If all of this led to Mrs. Sarton being convicted of murder, he was never going to think of it as nice work.
• • •
Frank and Bear were given the duty of helping to keep the scene secure. Other cars arrived to help and Frank and Bear ended up near the garage, making sure anyone who came close to it had business being there, and signed in and out. Bear told him to stay put and toured around the perimeter to check on the placement of other officers. He wanted to make sure no civilians or press got close enough to be a bother.
The crime lab took more photos, then started dusting for prints, finding some on the outside of the drums, some on the lids. Then they did the same with the light switch and the hasp on the garage lock. He watched them work with interest, listened in on their conversations while keeping an eye on things.
One asked him to go find a handcart, but the other told him to leave the rookie alone, that he was Brian Harriman’s kid and Bear would skin him alive if he left his post, especially since the place was crawling with reporters, who were a little too interested in Frank right now. So the guy used his radio to get another assistant to bring him what he needed.
Frank figured all of that meant Bear had parked him this far back from the road to keep him from being approached by the press, or getting into trouble in some other way.
Two hours later, Bear returned to him and said, “So, they checked all the other barrels, no more pickled remains.”
“Did you think there would be?”
“Always a possibility. We don’t know what we’re dealing with here yet.”
“You think Mrs. Sarton has dead bodies hidden all over the place?” Frank asked incredulously.
Bear scowled at him. “You ever hear of Nannie Doss?”
“They caught her trying to kill husband number five. She murdered four of them, found several through lonely hearts ads. Also knocked off her own mother, her sister, a mother-in-law, a nephew, and her grandson.”
Frank recalled his dad’s advice and summoned his inner alien. He shook his head. Any spoken reply at this point would not help him.
“How about Belle Gunness?” Bear asked. “No? Belle Gunness killed two husbands and two of her own four children. She ran an ad for suitors and killed the men who showed up. Her place burned down, killing the remaining two children, and supposedly her, but the body didn’t match hers and its head was missing. They dug up her yard and found dozens of bodies.”
Frank said nothing.
“Amy Archer-Gilligan? Bertha Gifford?”
Bear laughed. “You may have grown up with cops, Frank, but you’re still green.”
Bear muttered to himself and started to walk off. After taking three strides, he turned around and said, “Women are capable of anything, wiseass. Anything.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“See that you do.”
Bear stood there for a moment, then said, “Let’s hear it.”
“First, if she’s guilty, why did she keep calling us? Why not just let the world forget all about Derek Sarton and his girlfriend?”
“Guilty conscience. Next?”
“If she’s got a guilty conscience, why not just confess?”
“Can’t quite make herself do it. Wants to be caught, but can’t turn herself in.”
“A stretch,” Frank said.
“Happens more often than you’d think. Besides, maybe she didn’t have a guilty conscience, but was putting a little insurance out there. Someone like you, who trusts little old ladies, would claim just what you did.”
“If she wanted to get away with it, why would she leave the bodies here?”
“She has control over this space.”
“Her son had keys to the garage.”
“Which she took away from him as fast as she could.”
“How does she spend the evening with a friend and manage to kill her husband and his girlfriend, haul the bodies from wherever they were, get them into the drums, seal them, and lock up the garage all before her son and his wife come back here with a truck?”
“We don’t know when he died, right?”
“Ask Mattson for the date he was last seen alive.”
Bear smiled, not pleasantly. “All right, I will.”
Frank thought things over while Bear found the detective. He was surprised, a moment later, when Mattson returned with Bear.
“So you want to know if we know when Sarton was last seen alive,” he said. “We know he was seen in Los Angeles by his son and daughter-in-law on Saturday, October 31, 1970, and Marlena Gray was last seen on that same day.”
“Thank you,” Frank said.
“You have more ideas about this case?” Mattson said.
He hesitated. He had half the department giving him a hard time. Bear was clearly ticked off at him for siding with Mrs. Sarton. And Mattson had already warned him about not trying to make recommendations to experts. And yet, on another case, Mattson had listened to him.
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“Let’s hear them.”
He glanced at Bear, then said, “If Mrs. Sarton has two sets of keys to the garage, then she could have put the bodies in there. I don’t know how she could have physically managed that, but let’s say she’s stronger than she looks or had a pulley system set up that she has since dismantled.”
Bear made a growling sound, but Frank ignored him.
“If she only has the keys she gave to Bear,” he went on, “the keys she says she took from Harold, then she had no way to get into the garage before Harold arrived here that night.” He paused. “Did either victim have keys in their clothing?”
“Interestingly, the woman, who has not yet been positively identified as Marlena Gray, did not. Pointe’s notes say she never turned her apartment keys in, but the building manager said he had to rekey the lock whenever a tenant moved out, so he didn’t think much of it.”
“So someone else may have been in her apartment that day, gathering her most personal belongings to make the story about her leaving town with Derek seem more likely.”
“I thought the manager talked to her,” Bear said.
“On the phone?” Frank asked Mattson.
“Big building, would he really know one woman’s voice from another?”
“You think Evelyn made that call?” Bear asked.
“I think it’s a possibility,” Frank said.
“She talked to friends,” Bear said.
“Either someone called Marlena and claimed Derek was sending someone along to help her run away from home with him, which might have been something she hoped for, or the friends are lying. Not sure about that one yet.” He turned to Mattson. “What about Derek’s keys?”
“The body of the man we have not yet positively identified as Derek Sarton was clothed, and after we fished him out of the drum, we discovered there were keys in his pockets. Keys for each of the two locks on the garage, and some others that look like they’re house keys and maybe keys to locks at his company. Car key is missing.”
“We have no idea how many of those padlock keys there were,” Bear pointed out.
“True,” Frank said. “Usually they’re sold with two keys, but you’re right, copies could be made. But that doesn’t explain the dolly.”
“What doll?” Bear asked.
Mattson turned around and looked at the garage.
“I overheard the crime lab guys asking for one to be brought out here,” Frank said. “They couldn’t find one in the garage.”
Mattson got a smile on his face.
“Those drums are too heavy for our guys to move,” Frank said. “Bear couldn’t move the one he looked into. No way Mrs. Sarton could have moved them without a dolly.”
To his surprise, Bear smiled, too. “What’d I tell you, John?”
“That he’ll be in homicide one day. Yes. But let’s allow him to get a little more time on the job. Excuse me, I’ve got an item to add to a search warrant list.”
• • •
Evelyn Sarton was arrested, first for the murder of Derek Sarton and Marlena Gray, and then for that of her husband. Harold had been exhumed, and toxicology tests had shown him to have an extraordinarily high level of ethylene glycol in his system, which, as Bear had said, would have been good if he had been a radiator, but human beings didn’t fare well with antifreeze in their systems.
Marlena’s friends were able to describe her most expensive and unique jewelry, and produce photos of her wearing it. Evelyn had Marlena’s jewelry in her possession. The same jewelry box held Derek’s car key. The dolly was in her garage.
The woman who invited Frieda Sarton to dinner on Halloween night admitted that she had been paid by Evelyn to do so. She claimed she thought it was just a way to help Derek get some things out of the house so that he could run away with his girlfriend.
Evelyn confessed, in a deal that took the death penalty off the table and allowed her to get life in prison, that she had shot Derek when he was threatening to fire her and Harold. No one else was in the Sarton Industries building at the time. They were in an area where the formaldehyde was stored. She came up with the plan to lure Marlena down to LA, and drove up to Bakersfield to bring her and her things to LA. She brought her into the plant, where she strangled her.
Not knowing Frieda Sarton had a controlling interest in the company, they were going to rob the business blind over the seven years it would take for her to get Derek declared dead.
Then they realized that if they left the drums with the bodies in the plant, they risked discovery. Evelyn then planned to make it appear that Frieda Sarton had killed the lovers in a jealous rage, and stored them in her own garage.
But once they had been seen breaking into the garage, and Frieda told them about her will and the way the company ownership was left, Evelyn decided not to push matters. They might be able to drop the weapon off at Frieda’s house, to make her look guilty, but then Evelyn discovered the house was too closely guarded.
Harold convinced her to leave well enough alone, since his mother still gave them financial support. Evelyn worried that Harold was weakening and might tell his mother everything. And money kept getting tight, so she killed Harold for the insurance money. Which, to her bitter disappointment, she never received.
• • •
Afterward, Frank drove by every now and again during his off hours to visit Mrs. Sarton, who treated him like a favorite grandson. She had fewer locks on her doors, had returned to dressing stylishly, and had started dating a gentleman who treated her courteously.
“I’m in no rush to remarry,” she told Frank. “I’ve already spent years hunting for a husband I already had.” She paused. “What is it they say? Always in the last place you look.”