Excerpt

"April 13"

Marcia Muller

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the short story "April 13" by Marcia Muller, excerpted from the new anthology Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, and featuring an unpublished story by Sue Grafton. This new collection honors the diamond jubilee of the Mystery Writers of America.

April 13. Anniversary number five. A ridiculous ritual, I admit.

Normally I’m not a superstitious individual. Black cats don’t bother me—I have two. I skip happily under ladders, don’t eat an apple a day, and have broken more mirrors than I can remem­ber. But I couldn’t get loose from this April thirteenth obsession.

It was eleven in the morning. I’d cleared up all my paper­work, held a staff meeting, and conferred one-on-one with various of my operatives. Hy Ripinsky, my husband and part­ner in McCone & Ripinsky Investigations, was back east at our Chicago field office, and I had nothing urgent to share with him anyway. I wasn’t currently working a case myself. No rea­son to remain in my office in the M&R building. After all, I was the boss!

But still I remained at my desk and turned to my computer, opened up the older case files section, and scrolled down to “Voss, Judith.” And there it was—the cold case that I’d reviewed  obsessively every April 13 for five years now. Maybe this year something would stand out—a fact or scrap of information that I had somehow missed or failed to internalize before.

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Judith Voss, according to her parents, had been one of those too-good-to-be-true daughters: the kind who make good grades—in her case, at SF State—never cause trouble in the home, date the appropriate boys, have ambitions appropriate to their family’s station in life. In fact, for them appropriate was a good word to sum up her character. She was conventionally pretty, excelled at soccer and swimming, wanted to be a physical therapist. In order to finance her higher education, she banked money from a part-time job clerking at a small flower shop near the home she shared with her parents in the inner Sunset Dis­trict near Golden Gate Park. She claimed she loved San Fran­cisco and would never leave it, but apparently she had.

Five years ago on April 13, Judith had left home at 7:00 p.m., supposedly for a French club meeting. She went out the door calling out, “Goodbye, Mom, goodbye, Dad,” instead of her usual “See you later.” When she didn’t return by the time her parents normally went to bed, they didn’t think much of her ab­sence. They assumed she had decided to stay over with a friend from the club, as she sometimes did. But when she hadn’t re­turned by late the next afternoon, Mrs. Voss called the friend and found there had been no club meeting; in fact, the friend hadn’t seen Judith in a month or more.

The officers on SFPD’s Missing Persons detail hadn’t seen much cause for alarm. Young people disappeared in the city all the time; they usually turned up unscathed. Detectives went through the motions, which included contacting outlying ju­risdictions, but finally concluded that Judith had left the city of her free will. She was over eighteen and had every right to come and go as she pleased—not like the decades-long plague of underage runaways who flocked to such places as the Haight, Taos, Seattle, New York, and Florida. The parents were referred to me by their attorney and they asked me to see if I could find something the police had missed. I tried for two weeks, but the record was straightforward; we finally terminated our profes­sional relationship, and Judith remained missing.

I’ve never considered any of my agency’s relatively few un­solved cases closed. Years ago when I’d been changing offices, I’d unearthed an open file that dealt with the disappearance of a young couple. I read it, put a couple of neglected facts together, and by night the couple were reunited with their families.

That was why, every April 13, I picked through the Voss file. An exercise in futility so far.

All the transcripts of my interviews were there, starting with my clients, the parents. Emily Voss was blonde, thin, and nervous; her fingers picked at her clothing and she constantly twisted her wedding ring. I suspected the nervousness was habit­ual rather than related to the problem at hand. When she spoke of her daughter, I heard a wisp of envy in her voice: “Judy was so smart—she could achieve whatever she wanted to in her life. She wouldn’t be ordinary…” At that point she let her words trail off and glanced at her husband. His thick lips twisted, acknowl­edging the unsaid, “Ordinary like me.”

Doug Voss, stocky in his neatly pressed chinos and checked sport shirt, was a high school basketball coach. His big hands swooped around as he talked. “That girl, there’s no way she’s in serious trouble. I trained her well. She’s strong, got her head together. Whatever she’s up to, she’s got a reason.”

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“You think she disappeared deliberately?” I asked.

He nodded. “That girl, she’s up to something, is what I say.”

Judith hadn’t had many friends—“Too competitive,” her fa­ther claimed—but I interviewed them all. And they all offered opinions that conflicted with her parents’ views.

Nancy Melton told me, “Judy could be a lot of fun. She had a wild side. Nothing dangerous, just pranks. Like stealing her boyfriend’s jock from his gym locker and leaving it on the math teacher’s desk.”

“Judy dated a lot,” a former boyfriend, Gary Cramer said. “You wanted some, you knew where to get it. She loved to fuck, the more the better.”

“She was a very spiritual person,” Cindy Stafford remarked. “It was always up to God. ‘God’s gonna get me for this.’ ‘God’ll handle this problem.’”

Art Gallo commented, “Girl knew—and used—more swear­words than I do.”

The friend who had the most penetrating insights into Judith Voss was classmate Barbie Jennings, a big, graceless woman in bib overalls and a T-shirt who, in the course of our talk at her apartment, tripped over a hassock, bruised her upper arm on the corner of a bookcase, and knocked over a tall stack of pa­perback books.

From the Jennings transcript:

BJ: If you asked me to come up with one word that described Jude, I’d say it would be wanting, as in aching for stuff. She needed… I don’t know what she needed. But whatever it was, she wasn’t going to get it on a physical therapist’s salary.

SM: She wanted something in a monetary sense?

BJ: Yeah. It’s like what we used to do on Sundays sometimes when the real estate ads came out. Jude would go over the open homes section and circle ones that looked good. Then we’d go tour them.

SM: You weren’t thinking of buying or renting?

BJ: God, no. Even back then, the prices were outrageous. And the places she wanted to look—Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights,

Russian Hill—were out of sight. I asked her once why didn’t we look at inexpensive condos or apartment rentals. Maybe some­thing nice would turn up and we could go halves on it. She said no. The way things were, she’d have to go it alone.

SM: The way things were?

BJ: Yeah. I asked her what she meant, but she just smiled like I was supposed to know.

SM: Did she have a boyfriend—this Gary Kramer, for instance—whom she might’ve been planning on moving in with?

BF: Did she have a boyfriend? Who-eee! Guys were calling all the time, but as far as I knew she didn’t go with any one for very long. And she didn’t talk about them.

SM: No one steady at all?

BJ: No. She’d say, “He’s strictly temporary” or “I can’t be both­ered with him.” That was it. Once, not long before she disap­peared, she found a house she really liked on Russian Hill. It was an odd little place, but she was very taken with it. As she was looking around I heard her mutter, “This would be per­fect for—” and then she saw me looking at her and smiled in that weird, secret way she had and refused to talk about it. After that…well, I decided she wasn’t much of a friend, and we saw less of each other. Then suddenly she was gone, and I never heard from her again.

Next I looked at the transcripts of my talks with Judith’s teachers.

Lynda Holman, English literature, found Judith “very studi­ous. Most of the kids, well, you see vacant stares and you know they’re far away, into something else entirely. But I’d be giving a lecture on Chaucer—which even bored me—and I’d catch Judy watching me with an intense look, almost as if she wanted something more from me. But the few times I called on her and asked, ‘Yes, Judy?’ she waved the question aside.”

Mark Bolton, statistics, had a similar take on her: “Most stu­dents take my courses to satisfy a requirement for a program like the MBA, but Judy was into them for the content. She wanted to know what statistics could do for her, personally. It’s hard to say why, but it was as if she was working on a problem and needed proof of the solution.”

Emma Carpenter, biology, said, “When she disappeared, I thought, ‘Well, isn’t that just like her.’ I mean, she was so re­mote. She performed the class and lab work all right, but she was…well, mechanical. Just filling up space until she could get to what was really important to her.”

Valerie Mott, women’s athletic director, commented, “God, could that girl run.” Then she smiled and shook her head. “Sorry, the pun was unintentional. But I guess that’s what this is all about—she ran, and nobody ever knew why.”

More transcripts. Older people, friends and associates of Ju­dith’s parents, all of whom had widely varying opinions of her.

“I wish I had a kid like her.”

“Sneaky.”

“Sincere.”

“Very helpful to her mother.”

“I don’t think she was very close to her father.”

“Physical therapist? I thought she wanted to be an interior decorator, or do something in real estate.”

“She wouldn’t just up and run away. She’s got to be dead. Someday they’ll find her body in a ditch someplace.”

“She gave off a strange sexual aura.”

“She went out with my son Jeff. Just a few dates. He found her boring.”

“I never caught her in a lie, but she sometimes seemed un­truthful.”

“Gossipy—but most of what she talked about was untrue. I wouldn’t be surprised if she made it all up.”

“She made me uncomfortable.”

“I’m not sure that there wasn’t something abnormal about the girl.”

“Flirtatious? Yes. But a lot of girls like to flirt with older men. And we like them to flirt.”

“Bright. She could hold up her end of conversations on many complicated issues.”

“Poised and socially at ease.”

More of the same from the Vosses’ neighbors:

“She’d sneak out of the house in the middle of the night,” Mrs. Polly Gilbert said. “I know because I’m unwell and sit up in my chair next to our bedroom window most of the time. There’d usually be this man waiting for her.”

“A man, not a boy?” I asked.

“I’m sure I’d know the difference.”

“Can you describe him?”

“Not very well. Just tall and well built.”

“Did you hear them talking? Maybe she mentioned his name.”

“Talk? The two of them? Not hardly.”

“Yes, I’d see Judy slipping out of the house all the time,” an elderly woman who wouldn’t give me her name told me. “Out the window, and gone. It’s lucky that’s a one-story house. If she’d had to climb down a drainpipe, she might’ve broken her neck.”

“Men? Nonsense!” Mrs. Olivia Johnson shook her head ve­hemently. “They weren’t all men. Some of them were teenag­ers, too.”

“Do you remember any of them?”

“Well, the man who came the most, he had a red Porsche—one of the old ones that look like an upside-down spoon—that he’d park down the street, and then he’d lean against the car, bold as brass. She’d go to him, and they’d take off. I can still hear the sound of that car growling away into the night.”

“When was this?”

“It went on for four months, right before Judith disappeared.”

“Did you ever overhear any conversation between them? The man’s name, for instance?”

“No.”

“What about the car’s license plate?”

“It was in-state. But I didn’t notice the numbers. I’ve never been good with numbers.” She shook her head and added, “I warned my Margaret to stay away from the Voss girl. Her mid­night escapades set a bad example. Let’s just say that Judith Voss never came around here selling Girl Scout cookies.”

That first April 13, the grown man with the red Porsche had seemed my only starting point. From my contact at the Depart­ment of Motor Vehicles, I learned that there were twenty-three such models in the Greater Bay Area that had been licensed over five years previously. Nine of them I could rule out because they were registered to women. Two were on planned nonoperation. Another had been in a wreck and consigned to the junkyard.

Ten cars, then, in various locations around the area.

I’d begun by phoning.

Owner #1 had been deceased for over a year. “I just can’t get around to selling that Porsche,” his widow said.

Owner #2 had been in Thailand on sabbatical five years ago. “Car was up on blocks in his garage,” his secretary told me. “He made me go over and check on it once a month. That’s how much he loved that car.”

Owner #3’s phone was disconnected.

Owner #4 had moved to Utah.

Two more deceased owners. At the second number a woman said, “I always told my husband that car would be the death of him.”

Owner #7 was annoyed. “I sold it to a kid a year ago. Don’t tell me he didn’t reregister it!” Apparently he hadn’t.

Three owners to go. None of them answered the phone. I decided to wait until evening, then show up at their addresses.

Eldon McFeeney lived in a bad section of Oakland: men wear­ing gang colors congregated around a corner drugstore; most of the dilapidated houses had security gates on the doors and windows, while others were boarded up. I parked in front of the McFeeney garage and mounted the rickety stairs to knock. In a few moments, when I’d just about given up on getting a reply, a skinny black man on crutches answered. His skin was dry and clung to his fragile-looking cheekbones; his hair had receded to two small spots above his large ears; a strong odor of alcohol surrounded him.

“Yes, what is it?” he asked.

I handed him one of my cards. He looked at it, shook his head, and muttered something that sounded like, “What next?”

“I’m interested in the Porsche 912 you have registered under your name,” I said.

“The Porsche…that’s not mine. Can you see an old wreck like me driving that baby?” He smiled faintly. “It’s my younger brother’s, registered in my name because…well, Donny has trou­ble with traffic cops. They took his license away permanently years ago.”

“How many years?”

“Seven? Eight? My memory’s not so good.”

“Does Donny live here with you?”

“No, ma’am. I don’t know where he crashes these days. The car lives with me—he’s too messed up to drive it.”

“How long has the Porsche been living with you?”

“Five years. It needs a lot of work, but since I don’t drive it, I’m not putting any money into it.”

“Does your brother drive it at all?”

“Not since he parked it in my garage. I suppose I’ll get around to selling it when he…goes.”

I knew what he meant by “goes.” I myself had had a brother who died of drug addiction.

Arthur Harris, the next Porsche owner, was an entrepreneur of sorts. His office was a cubicle in a shared workspace in an old building on Fourth Street south of Market. The lettering on the door said Entertainers Collective.

The cubicle was tiny: a single desk and two chairs, one of which was piled with files, and a bookcase full of reference works that were mostly collapsed on one another. Harris him­self was fifty at the outside and energetic, judging from the way he sprang from his chair when I entered. His blond handlebar mustache twitched as he examined my card, and he then stud­ied me with keen blue eyes.

“I don’t believe this,” he exclaimed. “A private eye masquer­ading as an entertainer. What is it you do—act, sing, play the xylophone?”

“None of the three.” I took the chair he indicated. “Actually, this is an inquiry about a disappearance. Are you familiar with the name Judith Voss?”

Pause. “Can’t say as I am. Does she act, sing—”

“No, and she doesn’t play the xylophone. I understand you own a red Porsche 912, license number—”

“So what if I do?”

“And you’ve owned it since…?”

“Oh, maybe seven years. What the hell does that matter?”

“Judith Voss had a friend who owned one. She was seen with him shortly before she disappeared last month.”

“Well, that friend wasn’t me.”

“I see. I’m curious—what exactly is it you do, Mr. Harris?”

He began fiddling with objects on his desk—a stapler, letter opener, calculator. “I’m an agent—I put my clients together—

actor with director, scriptwriter with producer, that sort of thing.”

“And you take a fee from them?”

“Of course.”

“Sounds like interesting work. How long have you been doing this?”

“Forever, it seems. At least fifteen years.”

“Would I know any of your clients?”

He hesitated. “Well, there’s Sandra Adams and Kiki Charles and Lissa Sloane.”

I’d never heard of them.

“And Sam Sills.”

Sam was an artist; I knew him slightly, in the way you be­come familiar with someone you bump into around clubs and galleries and gatherings associated with the art world. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time.

I mentioned as much, and judging by the look on Harris’s face, he hadn’t, either.

Getting back to the subject, I asked, “Are you sure you have no recollection of Judith Voss?”

“No, sorry but I don’t.” His gaze avoided mine. I was sure he was lying.

The last red Porsche owner was Evan Draper, what the news­papers used to call a metrosexual: trendy, stylish, and thoroughly caught up in his own appearance. When he answered the door of his high-rise condo in the SoMa area, he automatically pushed back an errant curl of his dark hair and straightened the jacket of an expensive pin-striped suit. “Yes?” he said.

I gave him my card and explained my reason for being there.

He motioned me into a stylized modern living room—singback chairs and glass tables with spindly metal legs, carefully placed globes that caught the light from recessed fixtures and spread varicolored beams in all directions. Large uncurtained windows afforded a view from the Ferry Building and Alcatraz to the Oakland shipping terminals.

Draper was a gracious host: he offered tea or coffee and, when I refused, settled me into one of the chairs, which proved to be surprisingly comfortable.

“A missing person case, you said?” he asked, perching on the edge of a sofa.

“Yes. Are you familiar with the name Judith Voss?”

“The woman who disappeared recently?”

“That’s the one. How do you know her?”

“I’ve been following the case in the papers. Disappearances fascinate me—Judge Crater, Hoffa, you know. But why have you come to me, a stay-at-home accountant?”

I explained about the red Porsche.

“Amazing how you can trace people. Detective work is so compelling. I watch all the TV shows.”

Just what I needed, a detective junkie.

“I’ve been thinking,” Draper added. “This Judith Voss—did she have money?”

“Only what she earned at a part-time job.”

“Too bad. But she could’ve saved up and left the country.”

“Passport control says she didn’t.”

“But she could’ve gone to Mexico or Canada. I read some­place about how there’re places along the Canadian border where you can just hike up a trail, open a gate, and be in Canada scot-free. Or there’s always the old trick of stowing away in a mov­ing van or a UPS truck. They say FedEx apprehends dozens of free riders a month.”

His eyes were bright and his face was turning red; Draper was really getting into his game.

I said, “Those are two interesting takes on the situation. I’ll have to think about them.”

“What about her parents? What does her father do?”

“He teaches school.”

“Too bad. I was thinking he might be connected, you know. She could’ve been taken hostage by the mob—”

“I doubt it.”

“Well, kidnapped by somebody.”

“There’s been no ransom note.”

“But there could be a conspiracy. A friend of mine, he’s very into conspiracies. He has a fine collection on the subject, and I’ve read a lot of it.”

God save me from conspiracy theories! Next we’d be talk­ing alien abduction.

“Mr. Draper,” I said, standing up, “our conversation has been very enlightening. I’ll get back to you if—”

“Do you want I should send you some of the literature?”

“Sure, why not?” I headed for the door. It would make in­teresting reading by the fireplace.

So there I was: three red Porsches, their owners claiming no connection to Judith Voss. During the next few days I ran more checks on possible owners but came up with nothing useful. Second interviews with Judith’s friends and neighbors proved equally fruitless. Finally I had to admit I was wasting the Voss family’s money and my time.

File closed.

 

Late afternoon, April 13, five years later. My eyes were burn­ing from reading off the computer screen, so I hunted up the paper file and took it to my comfy leather armchair next to the window. The chair, which had been with me since my days at All Souls Legal Cooperative, had been shabby and butt-sprung for most of those years. But then, in honor of M&R’s splendid new offices, Ted Smalley, our office manager, had smuggled it out to an upholstery shop. When it returned, it was outfitted in soft brown leather and had acquired a matching footstool; now both resided in front of the broad window of my corner office beneath a ficus tree, also a gift from Ted and, appropri­ately, called Mr. T.

Okay, I told myself, go over the file one more time. If you don’t find anything, there’s always next April 13.

The impressions of Judith I’d gathered from friends, teachers, and other adults varied widely: studious, sneaky, poised, highly sexed, spiritual, a lot of fun. Who was she, really? After a mo­ment I turned back to my lengthy interview with her former best friend, Barbie Jennings. The word she’d used to describe Judith was needing. Needing in terms of “aching for stuff.” Stuff she was unlikely to acquire on a physical therapist’s salary.

Then the red Porsche came into the picture. A man had fre­quently met Judith, a man who could afford a classic car. Much as my friend at the DMV had searched—and much as the lunch I bought her every year as payment for her services would cost—only the three individuals I’d spoken with had matched the time frame.

Eldon McFeeney. Could the brother or someone else have taken it out of McFeeney’s garage without him noticing? I’d doubted it five years ago and I still doubted it; McFeeney might be disabled, but he was mentally sharp. It was something to check on, though, and I called McFeeney’s number. The woman who answered told me she was his niece and that her uncle had died the previous year. The Porsche was still in the garage.

“Nobody ever showed up looking for it,” she said, “and since it wasn’t taking up any space I needed—I don’t have a car myself—I just left it there. I keep thinking I ought to have it fixed up and sell it. How much do you think I could get for it?”

I referred her to her local Porsche dealer.

Evan Draper. A “mere stay-at-home accountant” and detec­tive buff, to say nothing of conspiracy theorist. He knew of Ju­dith’s disappearance, had advanced his ideas on what happened to her. A very enthusiastic man, Mr. Draper. But what if his enthusiasm was manufactured to mask other, darker motives?

Might as well see how Evan was doing this year. I left a mes­sage on his voice mail.

Arthur Harris. The agent who had named clients I’d never heard of. I’d checked on Harris on past April 13s. Harris was no longer listed in any of the Bay Area directories. How long had he been out of the agenting business? None of the clients he’d mentioned except for artist Sam Sills were listed, either. In the entertainment section of last Sunday’s Chronicle I’d noticed Sills was having a showing at a gallery in Dogpatch this week. Had Harris set that up for him? Well, why not go to his showing to­night and ask him? I had nothing better to do.

The NewSpace Gallery occupied part of an old warehouse in the eclectic Dogpatch neighborhood. A trendy part of the city between Potrero Hill and the Bay, the former shipbuilding center had been transformed by live-work lofts, cafés, specialty shops, brew pubs, and wine bars. Although it was early—only five—Third Street, its main artery, was crowded with strollers and shoppers. I stopped to admire a Peruvian cape in a window, imagined its outrageous price tag, and pressed forward.

The gallery was doing a brisk business. Sills’s space was a large one at the front and there were tags affixed to some of the paintings indicating a sale had been made. I couldn’t say I liked them much: he must have been in his gray period, because most of them were muddied, with occasional splotches of bright pri­mary colors peeking through. They struck me as real downers.

“That painting,” a voice said over my shoulder, “does it speak to you?”

I turned. Sam Sills hadn’t changed at all. Short, brown-haired, with a fluffy beard and a thick mustache that someone had once opined made him look as if he was “trying to eat a cat.”

“Sharon McCone! I haven’t seen you since…when?” he ex­claimed. “Forget my words—I wouldn’t attempt to sell you any of this tripe.”

“Tripe?”

He took my arm and drew me aside. “That’s just what it is—folks like it, buy it, keep me in food and drink. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

“In the interviews I read you used to seem so serious about your work.”

“I used to be serious about a lot of things. But I was only publicly serious. When I stopped with the self-praise I took a good look at my work and realized I’d better get a real job or go broke. Real jobs and going broke have never appealed to me, so I altered my technique and aimed for a less sophisticated au­dience. That’s why I don’t praise my work anymore. But you, I hear about you and your agency all the time. What brings you here tonight? Just slumming?”

“I wanted to talk to you about your agent, Arthur Harris—”

“Former agent. He took me on when I was a starving artist and kept me poor by stealing from me. I left him as soon as I could attract better representation. Is the old bugger still in the business?”

“Apparently not. He’s no longer listed anywhere.”

“How come you’re interested in him?”

I explained about Judith Voss.

Sills smiled knowingly. “You should’ve come to me five years ago, darlin’. I can’t tell you where your missing woman is now, but I can make a pretty good guess why she went missing. Along with his agenting career, Artie Harris was a pimp.”

For a moment I was taken aback. “A pimp!”

“Right. And not your small-timer. He set his ladies up in fancy places, trained them in the high-class call girl business. He had half a dozen or more in his stable at one time.”

“What happened? His agent’s office was pretty downscale when I saw him five years ago.”

“That was his cover. He figured the law wouldn’t suspect anybody that unsuccessful could have been doing so well in an illicit trade.”

A blonde woman in a black dress with an official-looking name tag came up behind Sam. “Mr. Sills, I have a customer who’s serious about purchasing Summer Dawn.”

“All right!” To me he said, “Good luck with your search, Sharon. If you need anything else, call me.” He hurried away with the blonde woman.

Okay, I thought, now maybe I have the lead I need to finally solve the April 13 cold case. The probable scenario: Judith Voss, a woman who reputedly “loved to fuck” and “wanted stuff,” had somehow encountered Artie Harris, a high-class pimp and the owner of the red Porsche she’d been seen in, and he’d set her up in luxu­rious digs. When Harris was forced to quit pimping, if Judith was smart—and I knew she was—she would have continued with her clientele and kept the fees for her services for herself.

The question was, where was Judith now plying her trade?

Somewhere here in the city that she’d vowed she would never leave? It was entirely possible. She’d surely changed her appearance—dyed and restyled hair, expensive cosmetics, ex­pensive clothes—and would be living a lifestyle far removed from her former one. San Francisco is a big city; she could have been lucky enough not to have crossed paths with any of her former acquaintances.

As soon as I left the gallery, I called Barbie Jennings, who ex­pressed surprise at hearing from me. “Is this about Judith after all this time?”

“Yes. I have a few questions for you.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“You mentioned a house on Russian Hill that Judith fell in love with on one of your excursions. Where was it?”

“I remember the house, but… Wait a minute. I kept a diary back then. I’ll hunt it up.”

It took her a few minutes to get back to me. “Here it is,” she said somewhat breathlessly. “End of March. Yes. Sunday. The house was on Taylor Street. It was unique, set way back from the street. You had to approach it down a little alley.”

There couldn’t be that many such houses in a district where millionaires had been putting up mansions since the Gold Rush days. “Do you recall what the cross streets were?”

“Umm… I’m pretty sure it was between Filbert and Union. Why is this important—”

“I’ll get back to you.”

The house was an original, for San Francisco. Tucked half­way down an alley between two looming redbrick apartment houses, and overgrown by tough old wisteria vines that looked as if they were reaching for the sun. Probably a converted out­building for one of the mansions that had once crowned the hill. There were lights on inside.

The woman who answered my knock at the front door could not possibly have been Judith Voss. Too old, too tall, with long red hair tied in a ponytail and trailing down her back to her waist. She wasn’t unattractive, but she didn’t strike me as the call girl type.

“Yes?” she said pleasantly.

I showed her my ID. “Do you have a roommate, by any chance, Ms…?”

“Kelly. No, I don’t.”

“May I ask how long you’ve lived here?”

“Six months. Why do you want to know?”

“I’m looking for a young woman who may have been a for­mer occupant—”

“You must mean Jennifer Vail. She lived here for about five years before I took over the lease.”

J.V.—same initials.

“And she moved out six months ago?”

“Closer to eight. But she didn’t exactly move out.”

“Oh?”

“She disappeared just before the lease came up for renewal. Here one day, gone the next.”

“Do you have any idea where she went?”

“No. Nobody does, apparently. Not even the police.”

“The police?”

“Somebody called them and reported her missing. One of her johns, I suppose.”

“Then you’re aware of her profession. Did you know Jen­nifer?”

“No, I never met her. Her profession became apparent almost as soon as I moved in. Men kept coming by, asking for her. I finally contacted the police, and the detective I talked to con­firmed that she was a call girl. He didn’t seem particularly in­terested that she’d disappeared.”

I didn’t suppose he had been. People are prone to disappear in a big city, and unless they’re prominent in one way or an­other, or there’s evidence of foul play, it’s just business as usual.

“Did she take all her possessions with her when she went away?” I asked.

“No, and it’s kind of odd that she didn’t. She had a lot of jew­elry and clothing that she left behind.”

“Do you know what happened to it?”

“It’s all still here. The real estate agent had it boxed up and put it in the storage closet. It’ll all be sold if she doesn’t claim it after a year.”

“There was nothing that might indicate where she’d gone or why?”

“Not according to the agent or the police,” Ms. Kelly said. “But you’re welcome to look through the boxes, if you’d like.”

“I would.”

There were three big boxes full of carefully folded underwear, lounging outfits, formal dresses, and informal wear. A velvet pouch held earrings, rings, bracelets, and necklaces. I wasn’t any expert on jewelry, but it all looked expensive to me.

I thanked Ms. Kelly and walked down the alley, but stopped midway, staring at the little vine-covered cottage. My search for Judith Voss had ended here tonight. And so had my April 13 obsession. I had found her at last, only to have her elude me again, and there was nothing more I could or wanted to do to find her a second time. Nor would I share what I’d discovered with her parents. They must have come to terms with their loss by this time; I was not about to bring more hurt to them by revealing what their daughter had chosen to do with her life.

Maybe her disappearance had been a willful one, and if so, she’d found what she was looking for someplace else. But a call girl’s existence is precarious at best. And it seemed out of char­acter that a successful one with expensive tastes would abandon her material possessions on a sudden whim.

It just might be that Judith had found her Mr. Goodbar.

__________________________________

Excerpted from “April 13” in Deadly Anniversaries by Marcia Muller. Copyright © 2020 by Marcia Muller. Published by Hanover Square Press.




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