Anthony P. Holcraft was found dead in the master bathroom of his stately Telegraph Hill home the morning after his company’s celebration of their initial public offering (known in the stock biz as the IPO). To say his death was embarrassing would be an understatement. Anthony Holcraft died in one of those freak situations that makes every mother who’s ever expounded the virtues of clean underwear wag a finger and say, “I told you so.”
His tighty-whities were all Holcraft was wearing when his body was found. The only other item on him was the toothbrush sticking jauntily out of his foamy mouth. I know this only because I happened to be in the Medical Examiner’s office when the call came in, consulting with the assistant ME, Alvie Spielman, on one of my cases. Alvie’s boss was on vacation, which left Alvie holding the reins. If the ME had been there, I would not have had a prayer of tagging along, but Alvie and I go back to our Police Academy days, where he taught my class crime scene procedures and forensics. There is also the slightest possibility that Alvie has a bit of a crush on me—if my mother is to be believed.
At any rate, this is why Alvie allowed me to hop on my Harley (a sweet ‘83 Super Glide II named Boris) and follow when he went to view the body in situ. That is, the fact of my being there, not his possible crush.
Holcraft was lying on his side approximately two feet from the sink, as if he’d taken a step or two backwards before falling to the floor. The toothbrush, as I mentioned, was still in his mouth which hinted that whatever had struck him down had done it hard and fast. His lips were twisted in a wry grimace that caused the brush handle to poke up at a disturbingly comic angle. He looked like a man who appreciated the absurdity of his repose. His underwear, for the record, was brilliantly white where he hadn’t soiled it in his final moments, and undeniably expensive.
I stood in the middle of the absurdly opulent bathroom, careful not to touch any surfaces, or get in the way of the forensics team. From my catbird’s seat, I watched Alvie go through the checklist of things an ME must do at the crime scene: having the forensics team take pictures from every angle, directing what should be bagged, checking the temperature and lividity of the body, and other things pursuant to determining a cause of death.
As he was doing this, the imposing figure of Detective Chief Ramon Mirande appeared in the bathroom doorway. I could tell by the furrowing of his brow and the telltale twitch at the corner of his mouth that he found the scene bemusing.
“What do you think killed him?” the Chief asked.
Alvie glanced up at him. “I won’t know until I’ve done a tox panel and an autopsy, but right now it’s looking like he was experiencing chest pains.” He gestured at the deceased’s right arm, which was at an awkward angle across his chest. Not draped, but as if he’d been clutching at his left shoulder. “Possible heart attack.”
“The foam is an odd color, isn’t it?” I said quietly, half-hoping Mirande would take it as a little voice in his head.
Alvie grunted and tilted his head for a better look, causing a cascade of dark curls to fall across his forehead. “Yeah, but that could be bile.”
“Or not,” said Mirande, before turning to me and saying, “What are you doing here, Gina?”
“Just happened to be in the ME’s office on a consult.”
“Uh-huh.” He switched his attention back to Alvie. “Let me know as soon as you have the tox results, okay?”
Alvie squinted up at him. “Are you thinking this is unnatural causes?”
Mirande shrugged. “Hammer. Nail. Humor me. I’m going to go interview the staff.” He disappeared into the master bedroom.
“Ramon apparently suspects foul play,” I observed as Alvie finished up his duties.
“Like the Chief said, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
“Actually, he just said ‘hammer, nail’ in his awesome economy of words. But you have to admit, he’s got great instincts about this sort of thing, and I find myself in the peculiar position of agreeing with those instincts.”
Alvie grinned up at me, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his prodigious nose. “Wow. You agree with Ramon Mirande about something. That’s newsworthy. Spidey senses tingling, are they Tink?”
I didn’t answer, in part because he’d used the annoying nickname a guy named Perry Dixon had given me in high school because my full name, Gina Suzu Miyoko, translates into English as “Silver Bell Temple.” Ergo, “Tinkerbell.” Ergo “Tink.” Perry is now serving time in Folsom, which has nothing to do with the nickname, but a great deal to do with my career as a creep magnet.
Alvie’s point was well taken; the Chief and I are often at odds, but not because of the stereotypical antagonism between legit law enforcement and the upstart PI. While that’s largely fictional, our relationship is more complicated. In Ramon’s eyes, I am a poor specimen. At a mere five-foot-two, and less than 100 pounds. I look, I am told, like a China doll and not—I repeat, not—a detective. I think of it as a tactical advantage, but Ramon believes it puts me (and everyone nearby) at risk. He takes every opportunity to remind me of this, and to question my choice of weaponry. My sky-blue, Taurus .357 Magnum is too much gun for me, and my chosen profession is absurd and will surely get me killed, yada yada.
For the record, I am not Chinese. My dad—Edmund Miyoko—is Japanese. My mom is very, very Russian and in her more self-conscious moments, affects a stunning “moose-and-squirrel” accent. I take after Dad’s side of the family: small-framed, inoffensive, gamine. At twenty-something, I still get offered the kiddie menus in restaurants.
The real reason Ramon’s circuitry goes into security mode when I am involved is personal. He and my dad are the best of friends. They were patrol partners once upon a time. They are, in many ways, birds of a feather, despite the fact that, well, let’s just say that opposites attract. Mirande is big and buff and aggressive. When he enters a room, everyone in it takes notice. Dad is short and calm and quiet. When he enters a room, no one notices until he speaks—usually to crack a stealth joke. Well, at least, we think they’re jokes. With Dad, it’s hard to tell.
Then there’s this: Ramon was procedural instructor at Diamond Heights the year I was there. He believed—in fact, he still does—that I have problems with procedures.
Told you it was complicated.
But I digress. Back to the Holcraft case. Alvie’s autopsy discovered no natural reason a man as young and healthy as Tony Holcraft had died of heart failure. He was 45, had absurdly low blood pressure, and was as fit as a latex glove. Despite this—and the fact that his demise was beneficial to several people close to him—the DA didn’t see enough cause to mount a full scale investigation.
That was when fate intervened in the form of Vanessa Pleasance, a celebrity mystery writer whose cachet was compounded by her reputation as an amateur sleuth.
“An unwarranted reputation,” Ramon growled uncharitably, two weeks after the three of us first exchanged wary glances over the body of the deceased. “Trust me, she’ll delight her readers and the media at our expense. She’ll be the star of the show; we’ll end up as bit players in a celebrity whodunit.”
The net effect of the Pleasance Phenomenon was that it took the Chief’s focus away from me and put it pointedly on the illustrious author. Chief Mirande was especially annoyed that the Holcraft investigation remained open, not by any effort on the part of the San Francisco Police Department, but because a celebrity busybody—who was in town to visit her nephew—had poked her nose into it.
“I guess you owe her, huh?”
Ramon looked up from the case file and hit me with a glare he meant to be chilling. It wasn’t. It sort of tickled.
“What are you still doing here, Tink?” he asked. “Don’t you have a deadbeat dad to track down?”
Okay, that stung a little.
Alvie leapt to my defense. “I think Gina’s got a point. If the case gets solved…”
“Alvie, if we solve this case we may get to say ‘I told you so’ to the DA’s office, but the fact will remain that Vanessa Pleasance was the one who kept the investigation open. We’ll have won the battle and lost the war. She’ll be credited with solving yet another murder case and we will be the butt of jokes from here to her publisher’s office in New York.”
“C’mon, Ramon,” I chided. “It can’t be that bad.”
“No? You remember her last novel, THE MILE-HIGH MURDER?”
“Yeah, but I thought you only read dead guys: Doyle, Gardner, Hammett … Pleasance is still breathing.”
“‘Ripped from the headlines,’” quoted Ramon, using his hands to frame the words. “She got involved in a murder investigation in Denver on Connie Granger’s watch: a leaper who turned out to be an unwilling suicide.”
Alvie repositioned his glasses. “Oh, yeah. I remember Detective Granger. Started with the LAPD, didn’t she?”
Ramon nodded. “She arrived to arrest her prime suspect, only to find that Ms. Pleasance had gathered all involved parties at the crime scene in order to hoist him by his own petard. The media was all over it. Granger lost control of the situation. Six months later, MILE-HIGH MURDER comes out and it’s in the news all over again.”
Talk about tight deadlines. “So, Granger lost control of the situation,” I said. “That doesn’t mean you will. Look Ramon, the investigation is open. That beats the hell out of having the prosecutor tell you there’s no case. Make hay. Just keep an eye on Jessica Fletcher.”
“You,” Ramon told me, “are annoyingly upbeat. Why are you still here, again?”
I grinned. “Because I might have some worthwhile observations. You always said I had a good eye.”
“Uh-huh—and a smart mouth.”
“Yeah. That’s what everybody tells me. But I spend less on Maalox than you do. So, does our mystery writer have a theory?”
The Captain nodded. “She suspects he was poisoned.”
“Brilliant. So do we.”
He gave me the kosoi sglaz (aka, the evil eyeball) for the “we”, but he didn’t argue.
“Yeah,” sighed Alvie, “but we don’t know how or by whom. The initial tox report came back negative for known poisons, which means I don’t know why his apparently healthy heart nose-dived. We even ran tests on those two champagne glasses in the study fireplace. No poison. Even charred, a toxin would have shown up. Bottom line, there was no trace of poison in his stomach, but I just can’t believe his heart stopped all by itself.”
Ramon nodded in agreement. “I think we need to lean on the beautiful, young business partner. She had opportunity and, if the relationship was what it was rumored to be, possible motive.”
“Isn’t that rather too pat, Captain?”
All three of us looked up to see the inimitable Ms. Pleasance framed in the doorway of Mirande’s office, a look of intense concern on her face. Alvie, ever the gentleman, stood to give her his chair, which allowed her to affect the grand entrance and allowed him to escape back to the safety of the morgue.
I shot Ramon a glance, expecting him to toss me out on my ear. He ignored me. I stayed put.
“Too pat for a murder mystery, maybe,” the Chief said, waving the writer to the chair Alvie had just vacated. “Not in real life.”
Pleasance wagged her head. “Ms. Lauren is only one-third of the HALcraft executive team, Captain. Jason Atherton has as much to gain by Anthony Holcraft’s death as she does. Besides, I know the young woman; I can’t imagine her murdering her business partner.”
“Ms. Lauren and the deceased were more than business partners,” countered Ramon. “She was included in his will. A number of their colleagues said there was a great deal of tension between the two recently. Witnesses at the IPO party reported they’d had a loud disagreement that evening in Holcraft’s private study. At least one attributed it to his new girlfriend.”
Vanessa Pleasance’s hands fluttered in a sparkle of blue topazes that almost exactly matched her eyes. “Jealousy? Really, Captain, isn’t it a bit cliché to assume that Ms. Lauren and Mr. Holcraft were linked romantically? I know for a fact that her romantic interests lie elsewhere; she’s been seeing my nephew Clark.” She produced this revelation as if she expected us to react with a gasp of surprise.
We didn’t, but it certainly hadn’t come up in the depositions I’d read. It did rather cast a different light on Ms. Pleasance’s involvement. I mean, what were the odds of the famous mystery writer coincidentally knowing a possible suspect in our (potential) murder case? I wondered if Ms. Lauren’s boyfriend had presumed on his relationship with his celebrity aunt to get her to come to San Francisco and terrorize the local PD.
“According to his appointment calendar,” Ramon said, “Holcraft had a meeting with his estate lawyer scheduled for today. Do you know anything about that?”
Ms. Pleasance’s elegant ginger-colored eyebrows ascended dramatically. “You mean to imply that he may have been about to remove Ms. Lauren from his will?” She shook her head. “As I said: I know Dawna. She’s motivated professionally, but I’ll never believe her capable of the ambition necessary for cold-blooded murder.”
“Could be a crime of passion,” I suggested.
Pleasance’s eyebrows made another journey toward her hairline as she shot me a sideways glance. “Pardon me. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. Are you also a detective, Miss…”
“Gina,” I said. “Gina Miyoko. I’m a private—”
“Consultant,” Ramon cut in.
That raised my eyebrows. So, I was a consultant now, was I?
“Ah,” said the writer. “Well, detectives, poisoning someone is an inherently premeditated act.”
“Yes, it is,” Ramon acknowledged. “Holcraft died at least two hours after his last guest left. The murderer must have considered how long it would take the poison to act, so that he or she was long gone when death occurred.”
“Chief Mirande, Ms. Lauren was not the only guest at Holcraft’s celebration who had opportunity and motive.”
“I didn’t suggest she was—simply that her motive is most readily apparent. And haven’t I heard you refer to poison as a woman’s weapon of choice?”
“Touché.” She conceded the point with a nod of her head.
After a moment of awkward hesitation, Ramon cleared his throat and said: “Actually, we owe you a debt of thanks, Ms. Pleasance. Thanks to your … interest in this case, we’ll be able to conduct the targeted forensics investigation necessary to confirm our theories about foul play.”
Pleasance’s round face softened with obvious pleasure. “That’s very generous of you, Chief Mirande. Many law enforcement officers would consider my ‘interest’ rank interference.”
“You can’t interfere in a non-case, Ms. Pleasance. Until you intervened with the DA’s office, that’s what we had. Our assistant ME and I were the only ones who felt there was cause for a homicide investigation.”
I cleared my throat delicately.
“And, of course, Ms. Miyoko.”
Seemingly satisfied with this display of humility, Ms. Pleasance took herself off to a book signing at Longfellow’s. I watched her stride purposefully down the hall, impressed by her sheer presence.
“Wow. Did you know about her roundabout connection to Holcraft?”
“Roundabout?” Ramon repeated. “Her nephew is Clark Penobscot—one of the junior HALcraft financial VPs.”
That wasn’t in the depositions either. “I wonder where he stands in this whole opportunity-motive scenario?”
“Don’t get the cart before the horse, Gina. First, we have to eliminate any probability that this was a natural death.”