Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
Monday morning I awoke with Susan Harris on my mind. I wasn’t sure why, but I had the nagging feeling that I should talk to her before I agreed to co-author Zoebel’s book. It had been three years since Grumman’s accusations drove her underground. I had tried to locate her when I was writing my version of Angel of Mercy, but to no avail. She did a good job of disappearing, which made me wonder if she’d had help.
I could find nothing about her online or off; or in the databases we used at the Times, so I called my best resource for locating people who had dropped off the planet, Rueben Morales. I offered to buy him breakfast, an offer he never refused.
“People don’t just disappear,” I said, sitting across the booth from him at the Nickel Diner. I was using a slice of toast to swirl egg yolk around my plate and he was drowning a stack of pancakes with syrup.
“Sometimes they do,” he said as he cut into the pancakes with the side of a fork. “It depends on how badly they wanted to disappear.”
“She had to leave some kind of trail. Didn’t you tell her that she shouldn’t leave town? Shouldn’t she have checked with you?”
“She was cleared as a suspect, so she could do whatever she pleased. And I can’t blame her. Allen Grumman would sacrifice his own mother to throw the stink off a paying client.” He stabbed half a sausage link and shoved it in his mouth. He ate with a vengeance, as if he was afraid the food would escape before he could wolf it down.
“There wasn’t a shred of evidence linking her to any kind of foul play and as best we could tell there was no secret romance between she and Zoebel. Everybody knew she was just a diversion, but that didn’t stop the press from crucifying her for weeks on end, present company excluded.”
“I need you to help me find her,” I said.
He shook his head at me. “Christ, Matthew, it’s been three years. Leave the poor woman alone. The case is closed.”
“What if something happened to her? What if Grumman did something to her?”
“So Allen Grumman is a killer now?”
“Have you met the guy?” I asked. “He’s like Tony Soprano, only with fewer morals and nicer suits.”
“Come on, you know Grumman didn’t do anything but drag her name through the mud. She left town to escape the heat, end of story. She’s probably living in Scarsdale, married to a dentist with a couple of snot-nosed kids. Why are you dragging all this back up now?”
I picked up my coffee cup and stared into it as I said, “Marc Cronenburg wants me to write Adrian Zoebel’s autobiography.”
His mouth hung open mid-bite. “After everything you wrote about Zoebel in your book, they want you to write his autobiography? What the hell are they thinking?”
“I’d like to tell you it’s because of my obvious talent with the written word,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure it’s all about marketing and publicity and getting tongues wagging. Who better to write Zoebel’s autobiography than the reporter who tried to crucify him in the L.A. Times and wrote a book with the same name as his highly-rated television show? The publicity of us working together will sell millions of books, or so Cronenburg thinks.”
Rueben sucked on a tooth and gave me a disgusted look. “I’m a little surprised you’d get involved in such a thing.”
“I’m a little surprised myself.”
He finished his coffee and held up the cup when the waitress came by. “So, are you doing it out of some morbid curiosity or is it just for the money?”
“Will you think less of me either way?”
“Not really,” he said with a half-hearted shrug.
“Aside from a huge advance and the prospect of some very large royalty checks, there’s a deal for two more books on any topics I choose,” I said, trying not to sound like a complete sellout.
“So you’re doing it for the money,” he said, giving me the eye.
“Why do you not sound convinced?”
He scowled at me. “Come on, Matthew. I know you better than anyone. It’s the curiosity factor that’s got you lacing up your shoes to dance with the devil, not the money. The chance to spend a little up-close time with a guy you think got away with murder. It’s your chance to peek behind the curtain and see if there isn’t something back there that’ll prove what you’ve been saying for years is true. The fact that a nice paycheck comes along with that chance is incidental. You’d sell everything you own and pay for this opportunity and you know it.”
“You’re not going to give me the old ‘curiosity killed the cat’ speech are you?”
He grinned as the waitress filled his cup and warmed up mine. Picking up the cup he asked, “Have you actually spent time with Zoebel? In the same room, I mean?”
“Not so much. I went to dinner with him, but all we did was exchange dirty looks. It didn’t end well.”
“May I assume that you made an ass of yourself in public?”
He knew me pretty well. I said, “Let’s just say our opinions of each other haven’t changed.”
He sat quietly for a moment, finishing his breakfast, letting it sink in. He said, “I’m trying to think of a reason not to do it, other than the obvious fact that it’s just strange to think of you in cahoots with those guys. You’re sure it’s all just a publicity stunt to sell books?”
“Cronenburg said as much,” I said. “He makes P.T. Barnum look like the Dalai Lama. It’s all about the angles; and nobody plays the angles better than him.”
“What’s Zoebel’s take on all this?”
“I get the distinct impression that he’d just as soon leave well enough alone. He doesn’t seem to be too keen on having the past dredged up in an autobiography, especially one written by me.”
“Hence your renewed interest in Susan Harris.”
“Yes. Given the players, I don’t want to walk blindly into this thing, Rueben,” I said. “She knows things about Zoebel no one else knows and I need to know what those things are. This could either go very well for me or very badly, depending on how much I know about those I’m getting into bed with.”
“Knowledge is power,” he said with a sigh.
“Can you help me find her?”
He stared at me for a moment, then wiped the coffee from his lips and slid out of the booth. “okay, let me see what I can do. It’s your turn to buy.”
I picked up the check and watched him leave. It was always my turn to buy.
* * *
Rueben called me back within the hour. “I had no luck locating Susan Harris,” he said, “but according to Social Security records her mother is working at a nursing home in Santa Rosa, about five hours north of here. Her name is Sarah Jane Woodley. I’ll text you the address and phone number of the place.”
“I appreciate this, Rueben.”
““You’re going to see her, aren’t you?”
“What if she won’t tell you where Susan is?”
“Then I guess I’ll turn around and come home.”
I heard him say, “Bullshit” as he hung up the phone.