Chet Kimbrough wanted to stop for fresh coffee but fought the urge. Instead he swirled what remained in his travel cup and downed the cold, bitter concoction. The brew was bracing and gurgled in his empty stomach as he replaced the container in his hybrid SUV’s cup holder. He should have also taken the time for lunch by now, but how sad was it that this wasn’t unusual, given his so-called lifestyle. Politics was worse than meth or crack. Once you were hooked on the excitement and unpredictability, there was no getting clean and sober. You had to have the next fix, and he had two shot-to-hell marriages behind him to attest to his obsession.
Officially, he was the chief of staff for Congresswoman Cynthia Kang and certainly he functioned in that capacity as he provided strategy and served as the representative’s sounding board on policy and perspectives. Also, like any pol’s right hand, his job was to meet with certain constituents and other electeds and to be the movable firewall blocking persistent lobbyists and favor-seekers. But there were other tasks that a practiced and deft hand like Kimbrough had to perform–his current destination being an example of a mission not particularly spelled out in his job description but essential nonetheless.
He checked his MapQuest printout and confirmed the address. Getting out of his Highlander, he noted fondly that the car he’d parked behind was the Bullitt limited edition of the Mustang, its sweet lines and styling inspired by the fastback that Steve McQueen roared over the hills of San Francisco in the movie of the same name. Kimbrough went up the cracked walkway of the modest Craftsman in Lincoln Heights. In the near distance behind the house, the old and new spires of downtown Los Angeles were visible. Old in LA terms meant a building erected about a decade ago.
He opened the unlatched, worn wooden screen door and knocked on the inner door. There was a shuffling of feet on the other side.
“Yes?” said a woman’s voice. Kimbrough answered giving her his name.
“You’re alone, correct?” The unseen woman asked.
“Like I promised.” Who the hell would he bring with him on this anyway? He was hoping to keep this shit on the down-low.
The door opened onto a gloomy interior. The woman, small-boned and thin in creased white jeans and loose top, stepped back to allow him to enter.
“Thanks for meeting with me.”
“What choice did I have?” Nervously, she touched her hair, a curly set of blond-brown piled curls going to gray. She was in her late 50s but few lines mapped her wary face. “You hacks have a way of getting underfoot,” she said sourly.
“I’m not trying to jam you up, Ms. Collier. But I’d very much like to talk with your sister-in-law.” Kimbrough had called around to several contacts and friends to get a line on the recently seldom seen Lacy Mills, his onetime counterpart with the deceased Grish Waller.
“Ex,” she corrected. The living room was sparse as a desert landscape and she didn’t invite him to sit anyway. She picked up a pack of cigarettes, shook one out and lit up with a disposable lighter. Collier stepped back from Kimbrough toward the mantle and put the lighter on it as she blew smoke into the dark room. “She killed Roy, you know.”
That got a reaction.
Collier snorted smoke through her nose, the cigarette dangling from her mouth. “My brother and her met in traffic school, can you beat that?”
Kimbrough shifted on his feet, hearing something. To his left was a doorway leading to a short hall and what he presumed was a bedroom. “He was a publicist, right?”
“Yeah,” she waved a hand through a new plume floating in front of her face. “Just a smooth-talking joker who got caught up in that craziness. Lacy out all hours of the night and on weekends putting out this or that fire, meeting with some developer, or helping Waller handle one of his contributor’s pals busted for a DUI.”
“It’s demanding, I know,” Kimbrough agreed sincerely. “That what you mean she killed him?”
Collier gazed at him as she took a deep drag. “Died of a heart attack and he wasn’t even 55 then.” She looked off.
Kimbrough might have argued but there was no percentage in antagonizing the woman. “As I tried to tell you over the phone, Ms. Collier, it’s not my intention to intrude but I do need to follow up on this.” She was a critical care nurse who worked the swing shift at White Memorial Hospital not too far away. He’d gotten a cell phone number for her and had left a message. She’d returned his call within an hour and told him he’d reached her at work. She couldn’t talk to him then and had suggested he come by her house. He wanted to know if there was a way to get in contact with Mills, but she’d given him the address and hung up. He’d called back twice but only got her voicemail, so he made the trip.
“Not that I want to be hip-deep in Lacy’s business, but why are you looking for her?” Collier asked. She stubbed out her cigarette on the brick of the fireplace and tossed it onto the hearth.
Kimbrough said, “She was close to Grish, as is my boss, and Cynthia would like to check with Lacy on a few matters Grish had talked to her about before he died.”
“It’s rather private, so I’m not sure what all it might be about,” he lied. Kimbrough had talked with Congresswoman Kang after her illuminating visit with her semi-wastrel brother. One of his calls was back to DC. Kimbrough was a partner in a restaurant there called McGoohan’s in the Adams-Morgan section. He talked to one of his other partners, the chef, George Pierce.
“Let me see what I can find out,” Pierce had said when Kimbrough reached him. “No, take that away. Look at those gills, they’re gray,” he’d suddenly blurted, talking to one of the vendors delivering a crate of haddock. “I’ll get back to you,” he said, signing off and returning to the controlled chaos of the kitchen. Later he sent a text message to Kimbrough after doing his own digging into the Pasta Grotto chain. Pierce was hardwired into the subculture of the restaurant world since his days working in his parents’ working-class coffee shop in southwest DC. He texted Kimbrough with several facts learned, including the name of the Grotto’s PR firm.
Kimbrough recognized the PR outfit as one that had also done other work for Mace Gilmore’s Fallenbee Directive. They had a Southern California branch. Through his calls he’d learned that Lacy Mills’s deceased husband had worked for that firm. Too many questions were coming up with her at the center. Time for some answers from her.
“But it has something to do with this sniffing around about how he died?” Collier asked. “Your girl’s got to cover her ass, right?”
Kimbrough gestured with his hands to indicate that she was on the right track–which she was, in a way.
Collier shook her head. “They’re all the same. We vote ’em in with their promises and their rah-rah about the people, and what do they do but run around seeking handouts and photo ops, and what do we get?”
“I know this sounds trite, but Cynthia is different. She’s not just concerned with fallout on her but those like Lacy who were also in Grish’s orbit.”
“Yeah, right,” Collier said dismissively. “But hey. I’m just giving you a hard time. You and Lacy and the Congresswoman can have each other far as I care. I just don’t want you coming back around to bother me on this, understand?”
“Understood.” Still, she’d had him over here. If she didn’t want to be bothered, why not simply tell him over the phone?
Collier said, “Fine. The best place I know where she gets away is this cabin she and Roy bought up in Big Bear. I wrote down the address for you.” She removed a folded piece of paper form a hip pocket and handed it to Kimbrough.
He unfolded the notepad sheet with the White Memorial logo. Printed on it in pencil in neat cap letters was an address and basic directions.
“Lacy and I don’t exactly go out of our way to keep up with each other. Last I saw her was two Thanksgivings ago.”
“I appreciate this.”
She was reaching for another cigarette. “De nada.”
He left, and a tall man stepped into the doorway from where he’d been hiding in the bedroom, listening to their conversation. He had bristling white-gray hair and gunmetal-gray eyes. He went to a window where the shade was down and peeked out, getting a good look at Chet Kimbrough as he drove away. He committed the other man’s license plate to memory as well.
“Satisfied?” Collier asked, blowing a cloud toward the ceiling.
“Very,” he said. He handed her a thick wad of folded-over twenties and left too, getting in his Bullitt edition Mustang. As he drove off, he called his men in Big Bear with a description of Chet Kimbrough.
To Be Continued…