It was a Thursday afternoon, almost five o’clock, and I was typing feverishly in the knowledge that by 5:01, Bernadette would be long gone. Reliability is a rare quality in a legal secretary, and when it came to quitting time, Bernie Catalano was a regular Old Faithful.
I was drafting a letter to the local claims manager of the Hartford Allied Insurance Company, which had issued a policy of health insurance to my client, Victor Tazerian. Victor was a fifty-four-year-old Armenian trash hauler whose leukemia was temporarily in remission. Hartford Allied, to the bewilderment of the Tazerian family, was refusing to pay for a new but promising medical procedure that involved harvesting and freezing Victor’s own bone marrow while he was healthy, so that it later could be transplanted back into his body when the cancer made its inevitable return.
Hartford Allied reasoned that as long as the cancer was in remission, no surgery was warranted. In other words, they wouldn’t pay for the procedure until Victor got sick again, and of course, once he got sick again, the procedure would be useless.
In the vernacular of my profession, this was called insurance bad faith—a state of affairs to which, in its many and varied forms, I was no stranger. As I’d tried to explain to Victor’s sobbing wife Lina, the insurance industry operates in strict accordance with the three rules of American capitalism: invest someone else’s money, make a profit, and try to keep both.
And so Victor Tazerian lay in a pre-op ward at the City of Hope National Medical Center awaiting a surgical procedure that costs more than he’ll earn in a lifetime, while Hartford Allied’s regional claims manager stood by his fax machine in Thousand Oaks waiting for a demand letter from me that we both knew he had no intention of honoring. Lina, meanwhile, sat by her telephone in Glendale wearing out her worry beads, while Bernadette, bless her heart, was eyeing the digital clock on her desk next to her car keys.
And that’s the precise moment that Russ Dinsmoor chose to burst into my office and announce that Hush Puppy was dead.
I shot him a side glance and kept on typing.
“Shouldn’t Buster Brown be notified?”
“Hush Puppy is a horse, you philistine. A very valuable horse belonging to Mrs. Everett, who, need I remind you, is a very valuable client of the firm.”
None of which concerned me in the least, and so I ignored him, in the faint hope that he’d simply go away.
“I need you over at Fieldstone right away,” he persisted. “Jared’s out of town, and Sydney is beside herself with grief.”
Sydney Everett, I knew by reputation, was one of the wealthiest old dowagers in Pasadena, a city positively freighted with women of a certain age who’d made their fortunes the old-fashioned way. Which is to say, by outliving their husbands. I also knew that a felicitously large percentage of these women happened to be clients of the city’s oldest and snobbiest law firm, Henley & Hargrove, under whose yoke I presently toiled.
Jared would be Jared Henley, who, although not the brightest bulb in the Henley & Hargrove chandelier, was the only grandson of the firm’s founder and, I surmised, the partner currently assigned to wipe when Mrs. Everett’s nose started to run.
Characteristically, however, Jared was vacationing in Cancún, or Bimini, or wherever it was that slow-witted grandchildren with trust funds went to mate with others of their kind.
“Why me?” I finally asked, glancing up from my screen. “I don’t know a fetlock from a half nelson.”
“Because there are two insurance adjusters out there as we speak, and we don’t want there to be any trouble.”
Deftly, painlessly, Russ Dinsmoor had sunk the hook.
“Trouble? Why would there be trouble?”
“I’ll fill you in on the details later, Mac. For now, we must let slip the dogs of war!” He threw his hands skyward, then joined them together in prayer. “Please, big fella? For me?”
I caught a faint whiff of horse manure right there in my office, but I could see that Russ was genuinely concerned.
“All right already, I’m slipping. Just get out of here and let me finish this.”
When I finally brought the letter out to Bernie, at exactly 4:59 P.M., she was sitting with her long legs crossed, filing her fingernails.
“Isn’t that a little cliché?” I asked.
“No,” she said, frowning at the clock. “It’s a friggin’ emery board.”
* * *
It was a ten-minute drive from Pasadena to the nearby suburb of Flintridge, a bucolic burg best known, where known at all, as the home of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That’s where they design and build all nature of moon rockets, Mars probes, and other esoteric space projects whose only societal benefit, as near as I could tell, was to keep Caltech graduates from defaulting on their student loans.
A quiet enclave of broad lawns and stately mansions, Flintridge had a reputation as one of the more affluent cities in the sprawling megalopolis of Southern California, a part of the world in which affluence, like Kardashians, seemed to be everywhere.
It was almost five thirty when I rolled the Wrangler up to the gatehouse of the Fieldstone Riding Club, and was there greeted by a wizened old codger with a clipboard. He wore what looked like the Gilbert and Sullivan interpretation of a military dress uniform, and I stifled an impulse to salute.
“Jack MacTaggart,” I announced, “to see Sydney Everett.”
He cast a dubious eye on the Jeep as he flipped through his list of authorized guests.
“Look, I’m probably not on there, but I’m Mrs. Everett’s lawyer. From Henley and Hargrove.”
I must have spoken the magic words, because he nodded and waved me through, pointing me past an emphatic MEMBERS ONLY sign and up a macadam driveway where the air seemed cooler somehow, laden as it was with the vaguely menthol scent of eucalyptus. The sun was low, the shadows were long, and the light filtering through the treetops was a glass-blown kind of opalescent amber.
I parked in an otherwise empty lot beside what looked like a sprawling hacienda, its walls of whitewashed plaster quaintly moldering under a mission tile roof. The clubhouse, like the rolling grounds it commanded, looked eerily deserted. I cut the engine, surveyed the surroundings, and did some quick arithmetic.
Even in a down real estate market, I figured that an unimproved half-acre lot in Flintridge, if you could find such a thing, went for a million bucks or so, depending on the location. This place looked to be over a hundred acres, and it sat in one of the tonier neighborhoods, bordered on the east by JPL and the parklands of the Arroyo Seco, and on the north by the lilac-colored foothills of the Angeles National Forest.
I didn’t know how many members they had here, or the buy-in cost of a membership, but the breakup value of this place had to be enough to launch a couple of those satellites from across the road.
I shrugged into my suit jacket and set off on foot, following a dirt path that wended northward toward the hills. Songbirds were trilling in the massive oaks, and a red-tail hawk hung silently overhead. Not a bad place, I told myself, to spend your idle hours chasing foxes, or Democrats, or whatever they did around here for sport.
And then, as if a soundtrack to that reverie, I heard the rhythmic drum of hoofbeats, and I turned to see a young woman astride a gleaming black horse that grew in its approach to the approximate size of a mastodon. I stepped to one side, but she halted the thundering beast on a dime without so much as a tug on the reins. It was a pretty neat trick.
“You look lost,” she informed me, flashing a smile from on high.
“Were the wing tips a giveaway?”
“They’re not very practical around here, I’m afraid.”
She had the wholesome good looks of a J.Crew catalog model, all dark eyebrows and high cheekbones. She wore a dirty polo shirt and khaki riding breeches that disappeared, just at the knee, into tall black boots. She was slender and tanned, and her hair spilled like a gusher of sweet crude from the back of a faded baseball cap.
I edged closer and reached up a hand.
“I’m Jack MacTaggart.”
“Faith and begorra!” she laughed in a comic brogue as she leaned over to shake. “I’m Tara Flynn. And this”—she patted the big horse on its neck—“is Escalator.”
I stepped back to regard the horse, which was ignoring us both and cropping at a strip of grass by the path. It was the largest living thing I’d seen outside of a zoo.
“Let me guess. Shetland pony?”
She smiled again.
“He’s a Hanoverian, actually. But sweet like a pony.”
“That’s good,” I said, “because if he ever gets testy, we’ll have to call out the National Guard.”
“Oh, he can be plenty testy. But a carrot usually does the trick.”
The horse raised its head long enough to deposit some greenish slime on my pant leg. I scratched him lightly between the ears.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen a couple of beady-eyed weasels in business suits skulking about the place, have you?”
Her smile faded.
“Are you here about Hush Puppy?”
“That’s right. I’m one of Mrs. Everett’s lawyers.”
She considered that for a moment, then gathered up the reins and turned the big horse ninety degrees to port. She pointed with her chin to some buildings off in the distance.
“If you head that way and look for Doc Wells’s truck—it’s a big white pickup—you’ll find them all there.” Then she added wistfully, “What a nightmare.”
“I guess Mrs. Everett’s pretty broken up about it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t count on that,” she said, wheeling the horse around. “It was nice to meet you, Jack. I hope you’re a good lawyer.”
In the courtyard central to the four barns sat a white pickup truck, its tailgate down, alongside a silver Chevy compact and a burgundy Jaguar. Arrayed on the pickup’s tailgate were what looked like instruments of persuasion from the Spanish Inquisition—tongs and calipers, blades and files, hooks and giant syringes. I heard the low murmur of voices emanating from the westernmost barn, so I headed in that direction, fishing a couple of business cards from my wallet as I walked.
They were gathered in the barn aisle beneath a neatly lettered sign that read hush puppy. There were five of them in all: the two suits, a kid in white coveralls I assumed was a groom, the veterinarian crouched in the doorway to the stall, and, by process of elimination, Sydney Everett, who was speaking into a small tape recorder held by the bigger of the suits.
I snatched it from his hand and toggled the Off button.
“Hey!” he barked. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I popped the microcassette and slipped it into my pocket.
“I’m saving us both a lot of paperwork,” I said, tossing the device to his startled sidekick. “And now I’m having a private word with my client.”
I steered her by the elbow, out of the barn and into the courtyard, where even in the fading sunlight I could see that my preconception of Sydney Everett—that of a blue-rinse biddy with her eyeglasses on a chain—could not have been further off mark.
Although I made her for around sixty, she could have passed for forty-five by candlelight. She had sleek black hair, a full mouth, and rich olive skin that gave her an exotic, almost Mediterranean appearance. She too was dressed in riding attire—gleaming high boots with little silver spurs, tight black breeches, and a white cotton blouse that stretched to contain breasts of a shape and size not ordinarily found in nature.
She had the look of a woman who’d been around the block a few times, and who’d ended up buying the neighborhood.
“I admire a man of action,” she informed me in a whiskey voice poured straight from the French Quarter.
“I’m Jack MacTaggart,” I said, handing her a card as we walked. “Man of action.”
She stopped to examine the card, and to give me the full head to toe.
“I was expecting Jared Henley,” she said. “But I can’t say I’m disappointed.”
“I believe Jared’s in Akron, for the big Star Trek convention. Russ Dinsmoor asked me to pinch hit.”
She slipped the card into her breast pocket. It was a tight squeeze.
“Russell is just so thoughtful,” she purred. “Was I being dreadfully foolish, giving a statement like that?”
“Did you tell them you were waiting for your lawyer?”
“Why of course. They were right there when I called Russell from my car.”
“That figures. I would have had to go to court for an order excluding the statement.”
“Oh, my. That wasn’t very sporting of them.”
“Look, Mrs. Everett—”
“Sydney. Those men in there are not your friends, okay? Their only purpose in coming out here was to find some way to avoid paying your claim. You need to understand that right up front.”
She nodded earnestly. “If you say so, Jack.”
“Now look, we’ve only got a couple of minutes. Tell me everything you know about . . . what happened.”
She cocked her hip and touched a manicured finger to her lips, a fleeting convergence of acrylic and collagen.
“Let’s see. Enrique found Hush Puppy this morning, at feeding time. Enrique is the young man inside.”
“Who was the last person to see the horse alive?”
She thought about that.
“I don’t really know. I’d imagine it was Tara. Tara Flynn. She’s the stable manager here at Fieldstone. She checks on the horses at night.”
Lucky horses. “And when does she usually do that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Around six o’clock.”
“And what time did Enrique find him this morning?”
“Around seven thirty. At least, that’s what he said.”
Which left a window of more than thirteen hours for the horse to turn belly-up.
“Had Hush Puppy been ill or . . . out of sorts in any way?”
She considered this for a moment, then shook her head.
“Not that I’m aware of, no. Of course, you’d have to ask Barbara.”
Of course. “And who’s Barbara?”
“Why, Barbara Hauser. Barbara campaigned Hush Puppy.”
I crossed to the pickup’s tailgate. In addition to the stuff laid out on display, there were clear plastic drawers with gauze and swabs and, in one of the compartments, a .45 caliber revolver. Doc Wells, it seemed, was not averse to a little old-school euthanasia.
Sydney followed me, positioning herself so that her outsized ordinance targeted the general vicinity of my nose. It was like staring into the grille of a ’54 Buick.
“Look, Mrs. . . . ah, Sydney. I have to confess that I don’t know a whole lot about horses, or what exactly one does with them at a place like Fieldstone. I assumed that you rode Hush Puppy because you owned him.”
She thought this was amusing, the idea of a woman riding her own horse.
“No, I’ve never even sat on Hush Puppy, and I’ve had him for nearly four years. You see, Hush Puppy was a grand prix level show jumper. He and Barbara were working toward the Olympic trials in March.”
“And where is Barbara now?”
“I think she’s in San Juan Capistrano this week. Or is it Del Mar? You can check in the barn office. They’ll have her schedule.”
I knew that the suits would be getting antsy by now, and that I could get the details from Sydney later.
“Two more questions before we head on back. First, how large is the policy on Hush Puppy’s life?”
“Oh, let’s see,” she said, her eyes rolling skyward. “I believe that it’s two million dollars.”
I nearly fell off the tailgate.
“What’s your other question, Jack?”
“Forgive me for asking, but where were you between six o’clock last night and seven thirty this morning?”
Now a question like that can elicit any number of reactions from a client, ranging from surprise to mild annoyance to righteous indignation. Sydney Everett exhibited none of these.
“I had dinner at the Valley Hunt Club at seven, with friends from the Children’s Hospital Guild. Plenty of witnesses there. Then several of us attended a concert at Descanso Gardens. The Pasadena Pops. They perform alfresco. If you haven’t been, you should go. They’re fabulous. That ended close to midnight. And then I went home. Alone. Tara called me at eight o’clock this morning, just as I was preparing to come for a hack. And that’s it, I guess.”
“And what about last night between six and seven?”
She thought for a moment.
“I believe I was bathing. Also alone.”
Most people are uncomfortable looking you straight in the eye, even when telling the truth. They’ll glance away, or study their shoes, or flick some lint from their shoulder. But not Sydney Everett. She delivered her alibi right to my face, her Bible-black eyes never once breaking contact. If she was lying as to her whereabouts, she was a natural. Or else she’d had plenty of practice.
“C’mon,” I said, rising to my feet. “Let’s get this over with.”
As we reentered the darkening barn, I noted that the groom, Enrique, was gone. The veterinarian, Dr. Wells, had just gotten to his feet and was brushing sawdust from the knees of his khakis. I was surprised to see that the good doctor was not much older than me.
The bigger of the two suits stepped forward to remonstrate, but I ignored him and offered a hand to the vet.
“Dr. Wells? I’m Jack MacTaggart. I’m Mrs. Everett’s lawyer.”
He shook my hand, showing no sign of the enmity that doctors will sometimes exhibit toward lawyers. He had a good face—clean-cut, lantern jaw, all-American handsome—and the crushing grip of a man with Popeye’s forearms.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m George Wells.”
As he turned his attention to my client, placing a hand on her shoulder, I could see through the open door of the stall the lifeless body of a huge white horse.
“Sydney, I’m terribly sorry about the Pup,” he said gently. “These things can happen, even to the healthiest of horses.”
She lowered her eyes and nodded, disconsolate. Wells then addressed the rest of us, trading his warm bedside manner for the cold deportment of a clinician.
“All right, gentlemen. There are no signs of trauma, and we can safely rule out colic. I’ve taken blood, urine, fecal, and tissue samples. Pending the test results, I’m going to list the preliminary cause of death as cardiac failure of unknown etiology.”
He regarded the suits.
“You can make transportation arrangements at the barn office. You’ll have my final report when the lab work comes back, in around a week.”
Wells then turned and slipped his arm around my client’s shoulder— definitely a man of action—and together they walked into the courtyard, leaving me alone at last with my new best friends.
The younger of the two looked to be around twenty. He was pale and skinny, and he wore the kind of cheap suit that I associate with claims adjusters, car salesmen, and assistant managers at Sears. His boss was maybe thirty years older, and thought low fat was a village in Cambodia.
“Say, either of you boys ever heard of a composer named Al Fresco?”
“Gimme back my tape,” growled Porky, extending a meaty hand.
“I don’t think so,” I told him, patting my pocket. “But I’ll tell you what. If you want, we could call the insurance commissioner’s office and tell ’em you tried to take my client’s recorded statement when you knew I was on my way over to meet with her. Got your cell phone handy?”
He scowled and scratched at his ear, thinking that one over.
“Okay, all right, forget it. Keep the goddamn tape. But we’re still gonna need a statement.”
“Yeah.” The kid smirked. “We need to find out what she plans to do with those balloons she’s smuggling.”
Hardy har har. I handed the fat man my card. “You have any questions, you can call me. You want a statement, call your bank.”
I left them with the carcass and headed outside, where a wine-colored twilight had descended on the Fieldstone Riding Club.
Wells was packing up his truck, while Mrs. Everett sat in her car with the engine idling, talking on the phone. As I approached, she put the Jag into gear and roared off, shouting, “Call me, sugar!” across the front seat. Through the swirling dust cloud, I could see that her vanity plate read hrs play.
I was brushing off my jacket when Wells slammed the tailgate, hesitated, then started in my direction.
“I guess there’s something you ought to know,” he offered.
“After all these years,” I said, “you’d think so.”
“Never mind. What should I know?”
“Well, I have a pretty good guess at what killed Sydney’s horse.”
He had my undivided attention.
“Yeah.” He lowered his voice as he glanced toward the barn. “Don’t hold me to it, but I’m pretty sure Hush Puppy was poisoned.”