Soft raps upon a door were creepy at 1:00 in the morning. Especially when a person lived alone. Pulse pounding, twenty-five-year-old Carley Reed set the pan of Gnocchi alla Giordano on the stove and tossed the oven mitts to the table on her way through the kitchen.
"I'll see who it is, Jim!" she called in the empty living room of her apartment. She closed her left eye to squint through the peephole with her right. An aged face loomed out of the dim hallway.
Oh dear. Carley turned the latches on the knob and dead bolt, unfastened the chain, and eased open the door.
"Mrs. Kordalewski," she said, softly this time. "I'm so sorry. Did I wake you?"
"You did not. I had to get Shimon some Tylenol for his hip. I heard you in your kitchen."
"Is he all right?"
"He is just old. Like me. You have a visitor?"
"No," Carley replied sheepishly. "Just pretending ... just in case."
The old woman cackled. "In case I was a bad guy."
She was frail and spotted, with a hand wrapped around the curve of a cane and collarbones jutting above the white roses embroidered on a pink chenille robe. Her Polish accent was thick, even after half a century in San Francisco, but Carley figured anyone tenacious enough to survive the Treblinka extermination camp could speak any way she pleased.
"I had trouble sleeping," Carley explained. Cooking was her alternative to pacing the floor or wringing her hands.
Mrs. Kordalewski raised her chin, sniffed. "Spaghetti?"
"Smells good. You make with potatoes?"
"Yes." Easing the door a little wider, Carley felt compelled to ask, "Would you care for a taste?"
"Is too late. No good for digestion."
"Of course. Well ... sorry again for—"
A bony hand shot out and caught the door. "A taste is all right. I have Tums."
Three minutes later Carley was moving aside a stack of papers to clear a space at the table. Tums or not, she knew to dish out only small servings of the oval-shaped potato dumplings and marinara sauce. "I worked my way through college at an Italian restaurant. DeLouches, in Sacramento. I was a waitress, but I helped out in the kitchen when they were shorthanded."
Her neighbor picked up a fork, but her watery eyes studied Carley's face. "Do you not have to go teach in the morning?"
Carley glanced at the clock over the ancient stove. In five hours she would be rising. That is, if she ever managed to grab some sleep. Exhaustion clung to her so heavily that even her eyelids seemed attached to weights, but her mind, just as exhausted, could not cease running a treadmill of scenarios.
"What keeps awake a girl who needs her sleep?"
Automatically Carley glanced at the stack of papers just beyond her right elbow—her second-hour English Literature students' compositions on "Symbolism in Dickens' Great Expectations." The four on top were almost identical, word-for-word. It had taken her only twelve minutes of searching the Internet to discover the source of those students' "research."
"Just a little problem at work. You haven't tasted it. Careful, it's hot."
Mrs. Kordalewski blew on the morsel impaled upon her fork. She nodded after the first nibble. "Is very good."
"Thank you. All I need is enough to pack for my lunch, and you may have the rest. I'll bring it to you when I get home from school."
Which might not be a good plan, she realized after the words left her mouth. One did not simply send a note home with a student guilty of cheating. There would be parent-teacher conferences, perhaps as early as right after dismissal. "On second thought, I'll pack it up now and carry it for you when you've finished."
The old woman leaned her head to eye Carley's oversized gray T-shirt and baggy plaid flannels. "I don't know. If my Shimon is still awake, I don't want him to see you in your pajamas and get ideas."
"Mrs. Kordalewski!" Carley sputtered, half choking on a gnocchi.
She then noticed the ghost of a smile. "You're teasing."
"Maybe a little," Mrs. Kordalewski said with a pleased look, spearing the last gnocchi on her plate. "I thank you. Our granddaughter, Julie, visits tomorrow, and we will have something good to feed her. Remake your bed."
Carley blinked at the abrupt change of subject. "Remake my bed?"
"Put your pillow at the foot. You will sleep like a baby."
After accompanying Mrs. Kordalewski to her apartment with the promised container of gnocchi, Carley's longed simply to flop into her twin-sized bed, but she followed her neighbor's advice. Whether from some principle of ergonomics or simply the power of suggestion, ten minutes after crawling under the rearranged sheets, she began floating into gauzy slumber.
"It's a cool fifty-two degrees out there on this Tuesday morning, the fourteenth of January, with highs expected in the upper fifties...."
She pushed back the covers and reached for her bedside table, only then remembering she had reversed her position. Swinging feet to the floor, she felt for the lamp switch. Light flooded the bedroom.
It was furnished simply, for San Francisco apartments were not cheap, even south of Market Street, where the deceptively named Bridgeview Towers was tucked among warehouses and nightclubs. Over the years, Carley had collected a mission-style dresser, mirror, and chest from a consignment shop located—appropriately—on Mission Street. The rest of the furnishings were a mismatched collection that Carley had gathered. A framed, vintage-style poster of the Orient Express from Target. A wicker armchair bought on clearance at Cost Plus World Market. A faded and frayed Turkish rug the former tenant had left rolled up in a corner with a note inviting the next tenant to keep it or throw it away.
"... very light scattered showers until late this morning...."
After two pieces of toast with Earl Grey tea, Carley showered and turbaned a towel around her head. She could not skip the blush-mascara-lipstick ritual, for she considered her face to be as bland as white bread, with its twin slashes of reddish brows over eyes the color of gravel, nondescript nose, and thin lips. Her assets in the looks department were good straight teeth—thanks to a dentist who repaired years of neglect in exchange for tutoring sessions with his daughter during Carley's first year of teaching in Sacramento—and chin-length, layered hair of such an unusual natural blending of auburn, copper, and light brown that it drew occasional compliments from strangers of both sexes.
In the bedroom she pulled a teal green sweater and skirt over her five-foot-five frame and zipped her feet into black suede boots. She fluffed her bangs with her fingers; took up coat, briefcase, and lunch bag; and stepped out into the third-floor hallway.
When the doors parted, the elevator was already half-filled with commuters from the three upper floors. A tall, thin young man with chill-pinked nose and cheeks and a blondish crew cut stepped out before Carley entered. Carley was in too much of a hurry to pay much attention to the questioning look he gave her, but once inside the elevator she happened to notice that he was heading toward the right, where there were only three apartments. The elevator doors closed as she was trying to decide whether to exit.
Rats! she thought as the elevator emptied into the lobby. She pressed the third-floor button. Sure enough, when she stepped out into the hallway the man was turning away from apartment 3C.
"Excuse me ... that's my apartment." She sighed at the rumbling sounds of the elevator doors closing behind her.
The man winced. "Sorry about that."
The maturity in his voice made him seem older than her first impression, perhaps thirty. He wore a tan corduroy blazer over a green checkered shirt and dark brown pants. Long legs grew from white sneakers as big as loaves of bread. "Would you happen to be Carley Reed?" he asked, advancing a couple of steps.
Carley shifted her lunch and briefcase to her right hand and pressed the elevator button again. "May I ask what business you have with her?"
There was no reason to be paranoid. The Nikolaouses in 3A were awake. Faintly she could hear Katie Couric's televised voice, smell the aroma of strong Greek coffee. But then, there were the tennis shoes with dress slacks. Would any sane man dress in such a way?
He caught her downward glance and gave her a sheepish smile. "I forgot to pack my Oxfords."
"Oh." Carley relaxed a little. "Yes, I'm Carley Reed. And you are ..."
"Dennis Wingate." Taking the remaining four steps to her, he dipped long fingers into a coat pocket and fished out a business card. "I'm a private investigator."
She scanned the address on the card. Sacramento, California. "Why... ?"
"You might prefer to discuss this inside."
"No," Carley said, torn between curiosity and the need to get to work early. "I have to catch a bus. You'll have to walk me to the stop."
"Yes, of course."
As they waited for the elevator, he explained that he had been hired by a Tallulah, Mississippi, attorney by the name of Stanley Malone. He took another card from his wallet. "He's handling Cordelia Walker's estate."
"My grandmother's dead?" A lump rose in Carley's throat while a hazy scene materialized in her mind. Herself, very small, sharing a bench and carton of animal crackers with a soft-voiced woman. "How?"
"A heart attack. She went peacefully in her own bed, if it's any consolation."
It was consolation. Nice to have that image in her head, rather than the one she carried of her mother's final moments on earth—cursing doctors and nurses as if they had caused the cirrhosis of the liver themselves.
"Why Mississippi? My grandparents live in Washington State."
"Mrs. Walker moved to a little town called Tallulah after her husband died, according to Mr. Malone. I believe it was four years ago."
Another pang, even though Carley had no memory whatsoever of her grandfather. Her mother only spoke of her parents while drinking, when Carley's main mission was to stay out of range as much as possible. All she knew was that Sterling Walker was a machinist for the Port of Tacoma, Cordelia Walker, a housewife.
"Sorry to have to break the news." Mr. Wingate said.
She nodded as the elevator stopped and doors parted. Stepping back to make room were the dental hygienist with whom Carley sometimes chatted in the laundry room and the gray-haired man from the fourth floor who jogged every morning. Carley absently returned their good-mornings.
You have no more family, she told herself. And the only contact she had initiated with her grandparents was after her mother's burial almost a year ago, when she sent a note to the address she found while cleaning out her mother's belongings. It had seemed the decent thing to do.
But she had signed it with a simple From Carley with no return address. Looking them up was filed in the "Perhaps One Day" category. Family, as defined by the examples in her childhood, made her skeptical.
Which was why, at twenty-five, she had never allowed herself to sustain a relationship beyond a few dates. Why join her life with someone who could turn out to be a frog instead of a prince? How many times did her mother bring home a new man who was going to change their lives for the better?
Once free of the elevator and other sets of ears, Carley motioned Mr. Wingate toward the alcove where thirty-two mailboxes were set in the wall. "When is the funeral?"
Discomfort washed across the clean-shaven face. "It was in October."
"Three months ago?"
"I would have found you sooner, but the name I started out with was ‘Walker'. That was two names ago...."
Carley ignored the implied question. Mr. Wingate was a nice man, but that did not give him a right to her entire life history. She offered her hand instead of an explanation. "Thank you for telling me about my grandparents."
"You'll contact Mr. Malone, then?" he said with a resigned expression.
"Yes. And I have to hurry, or I'll miss my bus."
He nodded and turned toward the lobby door. "I can do better than that. Let me hail you a cab."
"That's not necessary," she said, following. "I still have time."
He looked back at her. "Please, I insist. I'll add it to my expense account, so you'll ultimately be paying for it anyway."
"What do you mean?"
The open glass door allowed in the traffic noise of Harrison Street. "Well, from your inheritance."