A is for Alibi Page 23

"Let's go back to Laurence. Tell me about him," I said. "What were all the infidelities about?”

She laughed self-consciously then and took a sip of wine, shaking her head. "Sorry. I didn't mean to get upset but you took me by surprise.”

"Yeah, well that happens now and then. Sometimes I surprise myself.”

"I don't think he liked women. He was always expecting to be betrayed. Women were the people who did you in. He liked to get there first, or at least that's my guess. I suspect an affair for him was always a power relationship and he was top dog.

"'Do unto others before they do unto you.'“


"But who had an ax to grind with him? Who could have hated him that much?”

She shrugged and her composure seemed restored. "I've thought about that all afternoon and what's odd is that when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure. He had awful relationships with a lot of people. Divorce attorneys are never very popular, but most of them don't get murdered.”

"Maybe it wasn't related to business," I suggested. "Maybe it wasn't an irate husband pissed off about alimony and child support. Maybe it was something else—'a woman scorned."'

"Well there were a lot of those. But I think he was probably very slick about breaking things off. Or the women themselves were sufficiently recovered to recognize the limits of the relationship and move on. He did have an awful affair with the wife of a local judge, a woman named Charlotte Mercer. She'd have run him down in the street given half a chance. Or that's what I've heard since. She wasn't the type to let go gracefully.”

"How'd you find out about it?”

"She called me up after he broke off with her.”

"Before your divorce or afterwards?”

"Oh afterwards, because I remember thinking at the time that I wished she'd called sooner. I went into court with nothing.”

"I don't understand," I said. "What good would it have done? You couldn't have gotten him on adultery even back then.”

"He didn't get me on that either but it sure would have given me a psychological edge. I felt so guilty about what I'd done that I hardly put up a fight except when it came to the kids, and even then he beat me down. If she'd wanted to cause trouble, she could have been a big help. He still had his reputation to protect. Anyway, maybe Charlotte Mercer can fill you in.”

"Wonderful. I'll tell her she's my number-one suspect.”

Gwen laughed. "Feel free to mention my name if she wants to know who sent you. It's the least I can do.”

After Gwen left, I looked up Charlotte Mercer's address in the telephone book by the pay phone in the rear. She and the judge lived up in the foothills above Santa Teresa in what turned out to be a sprawling one-story house with stables off to the right, the land all dust and scrub brush. The sun was just beginning to go down and the view was spectacular. The ocean looked like a wide lavender ribbon stitched up against a pink-and-blue sky.

A housekeeper in a black uniform answered the bell and I was left in a wide cool hallway while "the missus" was fetched. Light footsteps approached from the rear of the house and I thought at first the Mercers' teenage daughter (if there was one) had appeared in Charlotte's place.

"Yes, what is it?”

The voice was low and husky and rude and the initial impression of adolescence gave way rapidly.

"Charlotte Mercer?”

"Yes, that's right.”

She was petite, probably five-four, maybe a hundred pounds if that. Sandals, tank top, white shorts, her legs tawny and shapely. Not a line on her face. Her hair was a dusty blond, cut short, her makeup subdued. She had to be fifty-five years old and there was no way she could have looked that good without a team of experts. There was an artificial firmness to her jaw and her cheeks had that sleek tucked-up look that only a face-lift can provide at that late date. Her neck was lined and the backs of her hands were knotted with veins but those were the only contradictions to the appearance of slim, cool youth. Her eyes were a pale blue, made vivid by the skillful application of mascara and an eye shadow in two shades of gray. Gold bracelets jangled on one arm.

"I'm Kinsey Millhone," I said. "I'm a private investigator.”

"Goody for you. What brings you here?”

"I'm looking into Laurence Fife's death.”

Her smile faltered, sinking from minimal good manners into something cruel. She gave me a cursory inspection, dismissing me in the same glance. "I hope it won't take long"' she said, and looked back. "Come out to the patio. I've left my drink there.”

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