Chandler's Daughter: Chapter 1
I've often thought that the only thing really wrong with Boulder, Colorado, is that it is at least a thousand miles from any place else I might want to be. Oh, and the shopping here is crappy--but given my inability to develop more than a modest market for my software consulting services, that is of less concern than it once was.
Boulder is snugged up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and boasts the kind of community you might expect to find when a highly desirable climate and quality of life is coupled with a major research university--expensive. For that reason, I don't actually live in Boulder, but about seven miles northeast of it in an area called the Gunbarrel--so named, I am told, because, from a certain perspective west of here, the top of our hill is a perfectly straight line, or as straight as a gunbarrel. The name has an Old West ring to it that isn't borne out in the slightest by its appearance, which, except for the fact that you can see the Continental Divide from here, could be any suburban neighborhood anywhere.
I was brought here some ten years earlier by professional circumstances more than by choice, but I quickly came to love it. My only real regret is its remoteness from the friends I cherish, who are mainly now strewn along the two coasts, with a smattering slightly inland. There's another reason I don't live in the City of Boulder, the self-described "fitness capital of the world"; there's a rumor--to date unconfirmed--that people with fitness credentials like mine aren't allowed to live within the city limits.
Boulder also likes to fancy itself as "liberal," but its demographics show that it has little that it is necessary to be liberal about, being essentially a white, upper-middle-class city.
Anyway, it is a pleasant enough place to live in or, rather, near, and, at the moment when my story begins on the Labor Day weekend, had already been shut down for several hours.
When the phone rang just after midnight on Sunday--late for most of the people I know, but not too late for those who knew my habits--I waited for the second ring so Caller ID could tell me what it knew. It announced the call as coming from a local pay phone. I did a quick mental run-through of the list of people such a call was likely to be from and came up with zero entries, but I answered it anyway.
"It's not too late to be calling, is it, Lexy?" she asked.
I recognized the voice. "Don't be silly. I haven't changed that much in the last ten years. You're in the neighborhood, aren't you?"
A lot of people are still astonished by how much Caller ID tells you about them before you answer the phone, but she took it completely in stride.
"Yes. I'm at some place called the Gunbarrel Amoco Station and I'm on my way over, but I need a favor first. Have you got a garage I can hide the car in?" She was remembering my garage in basementless Palo Alto where I kept the things that Coloradans keep in their basements, leaving no room for luxuries like car storage.
"Yeah," I said. "You're only a few minutes away--I'll go out now and move my car out and leave the door open for you to pull in. Do you know how to get to the house?"
"Yes--I pulled a map right to your front door off my laptop two days ago. I'm on my way." And she hung up.
So she had been planning to come here for at least several days; why hadn't she let me know? Tally Richard--named, her mother claimed, for that aged and much revered movie palace on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Thalia, where her mother and father had spent many an evening in their penniless student days, soaking up great old movies. Tally's observation about this was that she was glad they couldn't afford Radio City Music Hall. "Richard" was French in origin, and the family insisted on a French pronunciation, or as close as most Americans can come--"ree-SHARD." This tended to keep people from sticking an unwanted "s" on the end. Tally had been my close pal through the decade of her preadolescence and adolescence and my advancing middle years, when I had been the tenant in the guest house behind her parents' house in Palo Alto. My friend Gladys knew Peter and Susan were looking for a tenant for their guest house to help them defray the costs of restoring their neglected Eichler. She also knew I was looking for a place to live in Palo Alto that I could afford, and so brought us together.
Eichler was the California architect who, in the post-war boom period, pioneered the concept of indoor/outdoor living with houses and townhouses with cathedral ceilings and glass walls that opened onto large patios. The area around Palo Alto and Sunnyvale is liberally dotted with Eichler developments, some of which are comparatively modest, others having more extravagant proportions.
Although it had been ten years since I had moved from Palo Alto, I visited with some frequency, and Tally and I kept in touch sporadically with phone calls, notes and cards on special occasions, and, in recent years, the occasional flurry of e-mail.
Now she wanted to hide her car in my garage. Well, that was fine with me.
I moved my car out of the garage into the driveway and anxiously scoped the empty street of my quiet neighborhood. As usual, Molly, my Westie, and I were the only ones not tucked in our beds at this hour. I had long since become used to the idea of being the only one awake in a world where decent people turned off the TV after the late news (which by my reckoning couldn't even be called late at the hour it came on in Colorado) and got up in time to jog before getting to work at seven. Tonight I was grateful for their virtuous habits. I had the distinct impression from my brief conversation with Tally that the fewer people who witnessed her arrival, the better.
In a few minutes a car came around the curve at the bottom of the block; I hailed it and waved it into the garage and Molly and I followed it in, closing the door on the still empty street as soon as the engine was cut. Tally got out of the driver's seat and we embraced. I probably snuffled a little, as I generally do on such occasions. She was dressed in jeans and a tee and a camel blazer, but as we hugged I couldn't help but note that the tee was silk and the blazer cashmere.
"Nice," I said, stroking her arm as we disengaged.
"Someone once told me that if it doesn't feel good, it doesn't matter if it looks good, and I believed her," she answered with a laugh, referring to my fabric fetish.
We unloaded her few pieces of luggage from the car and stowed them in the guest room without any conversation beyond what was necessary to properly introduce her to Molly and to achieve the basic tasks of hospitality involving towels and spare blankets. This was a feat of self-control I wouldn't have thought myself capable of, but it seemed to me that I needed first of all to make her feel safe and comfortable before I got my curiosity satisfied. At last we found our way to our usual venue, the kitchen.
"This certainly looks familiar," she said. It resembled my kitchen in Palo Alto only in that there was too little space for much too much stuff. I have every kitchen appurtenance known to mankind, generally in multiple editions, and enough food stowed to have gotten Napoleon's army back out of Moscow. If the truth be told, I live alone primarily so I don't have to apologize for (or, for that matter, modify) the excessiveness of my habits--and my friends know better than to expect me to.
"What have you got to eat? I haven't had anything but airline peanuts since I left LA. They don't feed you on the airlines anymore. I guess that's what we get for complaining about the food. Sounds like something out of Woody Allen, now that I think of it." As she was saying this, she pulled open the refrigerator door. "Ah, here's something else that hasn't changed about you," she said as my overstuffed larder began a premature disgorging of its content; she caught the package of prosciutto just as it was completing its slide off its perch atop the provolone.
"LA?" I said, my inflection and eyebrow rising as one. "What were you doing in LA?"
"It's a long story.""Here," I said, grabbing the muffins. "Sit down and let me fix you something to eat while you tell it to me."
And so she did. I started making scrambled eggs, which had been our staple late-night snack in those days when she would come home from a date and wanted to unwind and talk. Her parents, early birds both, would be dead to the world, but I would still be up and puttering around.
"You knew I was adopted, didn't you?" she began. I turned from the stove to look at her, but her face was hidden by the fall of her hair as she bent over to cement her relationship with Molly by administering a belly rub.
Her question, completely unexpected, caused me to stop and consider before I answered. "I suppose I did, now that I think about it. Susan and I never actually talked about it, if that's what you mean, and I always figured it wasn't a whole lot of my business, but I picked up the notion somewhere along the line." I tried to reconstruct the conversations over those years that had led me to that conclusion, but I wasn't able to pinpoint the moment when I knew. "You certainly seemed fine with it and I think I would have heard about it before now if you weren't."
"Oh, I was and am fine with it." She looked up at me with a smile. "Get back to work. I'm starving."
I turned back to the stove as she went on, "I couldn't have asked for better parents than Susan and Peter. I had the happiest growing up of anyone I know. And I've never felt any particular compulsion to know about my birth parents, which seems to be the fad these days. I suppose that makes me unnatural."
"I don't know about that," I said. "We only hear about the ones that do feel that compulsion, not the ones who don't. No, you may be unnatural, all right, but that's not why." She grinned at that; we had both always maintained that we were both nuts, and that hadn't changed.
"At least it keeps you off tabloid television, and there's something to be said for that," I added.
"Well, hold onto your hat--I may just wind up there yet."
"Oh?" I said.
"There's more to it than just that I'm adopted. There's some big mystery about it." She paused here, as if uncertain as to how to continue.
"Oh?" I was getting repetitious. "What kind of mystery?"
"Susan and I only talked about it a few times, but she told me the same thing each time--as if she wanted to make sure I understood--and it's pretty frightening if I let myself think about it, so I usually don't." She stopped again for a long moment, as if telling me would bring on the thing she feared. I simply waited for her to continue.
"She said the only way I could be safe was to not know who my parents were. That the very knowledge was a danger to me."
"What?" At that moment, I felt a little shiver of fear myself.
"She said that as long as my identity stayed hidden, I was safe, but there were people who would hurt me if they knew who I was. You knew Susan. She wouldn't have made it up." That was true enough--Susan wouldn't have joked about something like that.
"She also told me that I was well-protected; that if anyone looked into my background, they would find documents that would prove I was Susan's and Peter's natural daughter. And that the only people who knew the truth would always protect me."
"But she didn't tell you?"
"No. She said she would tell me the whole story once it was safe, but it still wasn't safe. And then she and Peter died."
Susan and Peter had died together in a freeway pileup almost five years ago.
"What's happened all of a sudden to bring it all up now?" And to bring you to me in the middle of the night, I thought but didn't say.
"This," she said, bringing forth from her pocket a crumpled piece of paper. I took it gingerly and opened it up to read:
SFR--Susan Franklin Richard. Tally's mother.
There was no signature; the writing was Palmer method in its purest incarnation and told me nothing about the person who had written it except that it was probably a woman.
"Who's PJ?" I asked.
"I haven't any idea," she answered. "I have a funny feeling about the note, though--like I was supposed to know who it was from and what it was about."
"But you don't."
"But I don't."
"How did you get it?"
"The note was hand-delivered to my room at the Beverly Wilshire--slipped under the door--the day before yesterday. Friday, that is. I was in Beverly Hills for a conference all last week."
"I know the San Carlos," I said. "I stayed there for a couple of months back in the late 'sixties. I wasn't fancy enough to stay at the Beverly Wilshire, myself. Well, did you go?"
"Yes, I went. When I got there, the place was crawling with cops and when I realized that the fuss was about something in the room I was supposed to be going to, I hung around only long enough to find out that a woman had died there. I guess Susan had succeeded in making an impression on me, because I got really scared. I went back to the Beverly Wilshire, checked out, and drove down the coast until I calmed down and realized no one was following me. When I got to Huntington Beach, I found a little motel and crashed. Saturday I went out and got the papers but evidently the story hadn't made the last edition, so there was nothing in the Los Angeles Times. I just holed up in the motel all day and tried to figure the whole thing out. I didn't get very far. The evening news broadcast didn't say anything about it and the Sunday morning paper didn't tell me much more than I already knew--the night chambermaid found her when she went to turn the beds down. Cause of death not determined, name withheld pending notification of next of kin, and all that."
She sighed and looked down at her hands. "The one thing I did figure out is that it probably all has to do with who I am. Who my birth parents are, or were, I mean."
"Why do you think that?" I asked.
"Well, the reference to Susan, mostly. I mean, that's clearly who SFR is. And if I am in danger, it can only be the danger that Susan was talking about. I mean, I've pissed off a lot of people lately--the job seems to call for that on occasion--but that wouldn't have any connection with Susan."
She picked up the note and stared at it for a long time, as if it had something more to tell her that would be yielded if she could only concentrate hard enough. She put it back down, looked at me and sighed.
"Assuming it doesn't have anything to do with my DNA, I think I must be an heiress. There has to be money involved. No other explanation makes any sense. Susan and Peter certainly weren't in hiding from anything. Peter had a really high profile, at least in the scientific community, so they didn't think they were at any particular risk. And I know I was with them from early infancy, because there are baby pictures of me with them, so it can't have been anything from my own experience, because I didn't have any. The irony of it all is that I don't need or want anything from anybody." She shrugged expressively, and then went on with her story. "But I couldn't simply go home and forget about it, so I decided to come here. I went on down to San Diego and got a flight out of there to Phoenix. From there I booked another flight into Colorado Springs--if anyone is after me, I didn't want them figuring out I was coming to Boulder because they might make the connection with you. That's why I didn't call you on my cell phone. I didn't want there to be any record of my calling you. I know I'm being paranoid, but I think maybe I ought to be."
She was now yawning deeply, so I busied myself with my cooking chores. I set a plate of scrambled eggs and toasted English muffins in front of her and watched in silence as she dug in.
"Boy, does this hit the spot," was the extent of the conversation until she had polished everything off.
She began yawning again and shuddering those deep, uncontrollable shudders of total exhaustion. "This is the first time in forty-eight hours that I've felt safe; now I guess I need some sleep."
"It sure looks that way to me; we'll continue this tomorrow," I said as I cleared the dishes and steered her to the guest room.
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