A woman of my size is supposed to be invisible—a factor that often proves useful in my line of work. My job is philanthropic troubleshooting. Such inquiries have to be discreet to be worth anything at all. As a woman weighing over two hundred pounds, my very existence bothers some people to the point where they erase me from the landscape. They look, and turn away. So I do my job, go home, take off the please-ignore-me black polyester pantsuit, and put on my preferred red silk lounging pajamas.
My name is Josephine Fuller and I make my living as an investigator of sorts, judging the worthiness of candidates for the charitable grants of Alicia Madrone, a woman whose personal fortune exceeds the gross national product of several small developing nations.
It was a June Sunday in San Diego when I went back to work—one month after my best friend, Nina, was murdered. She was a second mother to me. My own mother had been dead two years when I first met Nina, selling plus-sized clothes from her Pike's Place Market store in Seattle, looking like the kind of blond cherub Renaissance painters adored. She lived her life as a woman of size who never apologized or compromised. I was a miserable fifteen year-old when we met and Nina taught me how to be a confident large woman. It wasn't right that she should be gone from the world. Rather than consolation, it seemed a kind of twisted irony that I had inherited her cat along with her worldly possessions. Worse yet, I had a yearning for her grieving lover. I just wanted everything back the way it had been. Leaving Seattle wouldn't bring my friend back to life. But if I buried myself in my work at least I could avoid thinking about it for a while.
So I escaped. Mrs. Madrone welcomed me back with an assignment to make some confidential inquiries in San Diego. I brought the cat; in the depth of grief I couldn't bear to part with him. I wound up in a Point Loma house party trying to blend into the wallpaper, hoping to discreetly discover for my employer whether a friend's daughter was, to put it bluntly, insane.
I took a cab from the San Diego Airport across the Coronado Bridge to Mrs. Madrone's rarified hideout—a Southern California version of an Italian villa built around a fountain in a tiled courtyard. It functioned like a small hotel, though most of the guests were traveling executives in the Madrone corporate empire. Once in the room, I opened Raoul's cat carrier and checked on the tranquilized gray Persian. He was snoring. I left food, water, and litter within easy reach.
The top floor had been customized for Mrs. Madrone's wheelchair with ramps and hardwood floors. They hadn't done anything, however, to accommodate her personal assistant's lean height. Ambrose had to duck his immaculately barbered red head to lead me through the door to Mrs. Madrone's private apartment. His laser blue eyes hadn't relaxed in the mellow San Diego afternoon. He acknowledged the June climate to the point of wearing all white cotton, a shirt with a banded collar and trousers that looked vaguely Edwardian, as if he planned to take his coffee break with Vita Sackville-West. He showed me into a room bathed in sunlight, the central heating cranked up hot enough to grow orchids. I'd been in enough conversations with Mrs. Madrone by now to expect to sweat.
She wheeled her chair around to face me. She had been looking out over San Diego Harbor's turquoise waters. It had been over a month since her attendance at my friend's funeral, a gesture that both touched me deeply, and surprised the hell out of me. As pale and drawn as ever from her once-blond gray hair to her barely pink lips, her sharp dark eyes held an element of anxiety that I had never seen before.
"Sally Rhymer and I were at school together," she said. "She and the admiral are divorced now, she won't be at the gathering this afternoon. But Sally is worried about her daughter—little Amy. That's how I think of her, though she's a grown woman with a child of her own. Ambrose will give you the information. Amy has begun spending time away from her husband and young child to work with dying people. This, uh, calling... Does that sound sane to you?"
"I don't know. Is it a religious thing?"
"If so, it's something she picked up recently," Mrs. Madrone said, classifying religion with communicable diseases. She waited for further comment.
"I'm no expert," I managed to say.
"It's common sense I'm hoping for here," Mrs. Madrone said, worrying a thread on her sweater sleeve. "Go talk to her, see what you think. She'll be at her brother, Dwight's, house. Sally is coming over in the morning. We can hear your impressions then." She turned her chair toward the window to signal that our business was done. Mrs. Madrone never wasted words.
On the way out, Ambrose handed me an information packet, including a map and the keys to Mrs. Madrone's silver Lexus. He gave me brief instructions about how to deactivate the alarm with the key chain remote to keep the car from yelping. It did anyway, of course, sounding like an annoyed bloodhound.
Dwight and Colleen Rhymer lived at the northern end of the Point Loma peninsula, up from the Naval Training Center. Parking the car near their house, I mentally thanked Ambrose for suggesting that I borrow the Lexus. The silver status symbol slipped right in and looked at home with the cluster of high-priced Detroit and foreign metal parked in front of the house. Ambrose was usually right about these things.
A black Lincoln Town Car with a "Two Star" vanity license plate was parked on two gravel strips with grass growing between them, an old-fashioned driveway that ran alongside the house to a just-visible backyard cottage.
A deeply tanned, coltishly thin woman greeted me at the door, peering out from under brown bangs that hid her eyebrows. She wore a casually elegant white tank top with gold shorts roughly the same color as the heavy gold-link chains around her neck and wrist. She smiled inquiringly at me. Behind her I could hear music, a Frank Sinatra ballad, competing with a babble of party voices. I wondered if the woman in shorts was wary of me. Standing on her doorstep in a turquoise raw silk blouse and skirt I must have looked as though the missionary's wife had dressed up one of Gauguin's South Sea island ladies and sent her round to distribute pamphlets. The pearl comb holding my hair up and the matching pearl-with-seashell earrings put me over the top. I was way overdressed.
"Oh, yes," she said, standing aside and beckoning me in. "Mrs. Madrone's assistant called and said you'd meet Amy here. I'm Colleen Rhymer, Dwight's wife."
"Beautiful house you have," I said, stepping into the foyer and taking in the cathedral ceilings and polished wood floor that continued up a winding stairway to the next level balcony. Any reply she might have made vanished, drowned out by the deafening roar of an airplane that vibrated the Venetian blinds with the force of a minor earthquake.
"Amazingly inexpensive, too—and every twenty minutes or so I'm reminded why." She made a sardonic mouth and raised her eyebrows even farther into her bangs.
I laughed sympathetically, and she beckoned me along the hall. "Still, this is paradise compared to most of the places Dwight has been stationed." We passed mounted color photos of battleships, aircraft carriers, and fighter jets to a back bedroom. "You can put your things here if you'd like."
I left my purse on the bed with my sweater over it. I lingered looking out the window where a flagstone patio gave way to a few cactus plants bordering the backyard cottage. "Did the property come with an extra house?"
She raised her eyebrows up under her bangs again. "Yes, we can have our in-laws come and visit forever if we want to. Except that wouldn't be wise because we do have weapons in the house. Come on, let's put a drink in your hand so you'll fit in."
Either she was always sarcastic, or sensed a kindred spirit. Or maybe Colleen Rhymer was so over-the-top angry today that she was letting off steam in front of total strangers and she simply didn't give a damn. I liked her already.
She led me past a carpeted dining room where a few guests were grazing at a buffet. I followed her into the kitchen. A tall, stout man with lizard-tanned skin straightened abruptly and shut the kitchen cupboard. His startlingly pale blue eyes glared at us. He turned on his heel and left the kitchen.
"My father-in-law, the admiral," Colleen Rhymer said with a wave and slight bow, seemingly introducing me to the man's retreating backside. "An hour ago he switched from beer to diet soda with great public fanfare. But he has to splash some bourbon into the soda every half hour or so. Come on, you'll want to meet Dwight."
I took a can of soda from an ice chest and followed her into the living room. It was a bit early for alcohol. Dwight was even taller than his father and substantially leaner, but still a teddy bear next to his thin wife. He had the same ruddy complexion, a bit less sunbaked, and the same silvery-blue eyes. I knew he was a Navy officer. His dark hair was regulation short and his polo shirt and madras pants had the ironed look of a uniform. Everything this man owned would be a uniform of some sort. He shook my hand, only making eye contact for a distractedly polite second. His nails were bitten to nearly nothing. He kept glancing past me, over my shoulder across the living room. I was invisible already.
Of course maybe he was staring at his father. The stocky white-haired admiral had parked his soda and picked up a Minicam. He was now down on the floor aiming it up the skirt of a young woman, who was cowering like a gazelle before a predator. Watching this, I realized that she was perhaps the only woman here, other than myself, who hadn't been forewarned not to wear a skirt. A man about her age, who must have been her date, pulled the woman out of camera range. He looked out of place in this gathering, from his shoulder-length hair tied in a short pigtail to his Corona sweatshirt and drawstring pants.
"Dad, get away from her. You've totally forgotten how to talk to a lady. This is the only language you understand." He aimed a desert-booted foot at the admiral's head.
"Don't even think about it, sonny," the admiral said, not even glancing at the foot suspended over his head. "You're not man enough to protect a hot little filly like this."
"Wait, Brad," Dwight called, "let me get a gun and we'll shoot the old geezer." A few guests laughed, but most continued their edgy migration around the admiral to a deck that looked out over the flagstone patio below. Those who remained in the living room seemed interested in the admiral's floor show, or so comfortably seated with drinks and food that they didn't care to move.
The young man with the pigtail must be Omar Bradley Rhymer, the younger son. His date chose this moment to make her escape and he turned to follow.
The admiral was only momentarily discouraged. He got up on his hands and knees, held the camera to his eye and panned slowly around the room at knee level, "Looking for decent legs." He muttered in a gravelly undertone, "Doesn't anyone wear those hot pants anymore?"
"Only hookers," one of the women muttered.
"Women haven't done that in years, Ron. You're dating yourself." one of the men called out.
"Damn right, I'm dating myself till my honey gets here tomorrow. But I'll be happy to accept any candidates to help me make it through the night."
"Colleen, sweetheart, you should cut him off," a woman nearby said quietly.
"If only I knew how." Colleen sighed.
I didn't realize I was becoming a target till I noticed the admiral kneeling in front of me. He swung the camera from my sandals to my calves before he fell back on the floor in hilarity. "Look out, boys, the Zeppelins have landed! Is the party over? Maybe I can make the fat lady sing."
There was a sprinkling of chuckles and a few gasps. A silence fell over the room, but the admiral didn't notice. "I'm making some movies to keep me company tonight. And you're no use at all, darlin'. Be a sport and help me up." He reached a hand up, and caught me behind the knee. I almost went down on the floor with him. As I regained my balance, he groped up the back of my thigh to brace himself.
"Back off," I said, firmly.
"Thinks she can get coy," he brayed, gripping my skirt for purchase and holding out the Minicam with the other hand.
"No." I shook the can of soda with a thumb over the hole and aimed it at his eyes. The spray at close range startled him enough to send him back on his rear while I jerked my skirt from his grip.
"Whoa!" the admiral exclaimed, shaking his head and looking around as if he weren't quite sure how he had landed wet-faced and back on the floor.
Several guests applauded as I retreated into the kitchen. A woman handed me a dampened dish towel and took my dripping soda can. "Here, honey," she said, "clean yourself off and I'll get you a new one. We all enjoyed that." I mopped up the spilled soda from my clothes and arms and thanked her for the new can, although when she went back to the front room, I left it unopened on the counter next to the folded towel.
A glance over my shoulder showed me the admiral, his face flushed, was being helped to his feet by a red-haired, redbearded man with a traditional Santa Claus build, untraditionally dressed in a Hawaiian shirt.
I went through the front room. Pigtailed Brad Rhymer was just disappearing out the door with his whimpering girlfriend. Standing over the buffet was a square-built, African American man in his late fifties, his coppery brown head bald, his eyebrows gray, and his face furrowed. He was layering a cold-cut sandwich, moving with measured pace, as if the sandwich would explode if not properly assembled.
Colleen came back in with a plate of cookies that she put on the buffet. "Hello, Admiral Coffin, can I tempt you with some dessert?"
"No, thank you, dear, I'm watching my sugar intake." He stopped and pointed to a chair at the edge of the buffet table, "It looks like that young woman with Brad forgot her purse. They just left a moment ago."
"Thanks for letting me know." Colleen picked up the purse. "I'11 keep it for her so it doesn't get lost."
As he went past, Admiral Coffin leaned toward Colleen and said in a low voice, just loud enough for me to hear, "I see Stewart Meade is on watch tonight. Where's Freddy?"
"Freddy's out of town on family business," Colleen said. "Damn it! Dwight and I have friends who'd like to stay but he's already driven every woman under forty out of this party because he literally—can't—keep—his—hands—off." The last few words were delivered through clenched teeth.
"Freddy usually keeps ol' Genghis Ron in line," Admiral Coffin said, unexpectedly looking my way to meet my eyes with a brief, efficient nod that did double duty as sympathy and as close to an apology as I could hope for. He flicked his eyes back to Colleen. "Say, isn't Ron's girlfriend some relation to Freddy?"
"Right, Lani is Fred's niece."
Admiral Coffin nodded again and took his sandwich back to join the party.
Colleen stood for a moment surveying the buffet. Then she noticed me. "You didn't think you'd have to fight off the host's father at a house party, did you?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Try living here sometime. The old goat can't resist copping a feel if he goes past me in the kitchen. I thought Dwight was going to kill him when he caught him grabbing at my butt while I was setting up the buffet. I don't even want to talk about the precautions I have to take when I want to shower. The man is out of control." She suddenly seemed to come to herself. "I'm sorry, you wanted to see Amy. She might have left. Her husband will know. He's down in the rec room." She pointed to a carpeted stairwell that led off the foyer.
I went out to the hall just as Ron Rhymer came in from the kitchen. I glanced back to see him sprawl in the chair next to the buffet. The red-bearded Santa, who was apparently the admiral's sitter, Stewart Meade, followed him closely and pulled up a folding chair to the edge of the table. He rearranged a few dishes and set a bottle of Wild Turkey between himself and the admiral, who immediately pushed his glass forward so that Meade could pour him a generous shot. Both men wore nearly identical aloha shirts. Meade's was green, the admiral's navy blue.
I lingered just outside the door. I'd had enough of the admiral, but I was curious.
"My wife—my ex-wife—used to tell me I was an alcoholic,'' the admiral remarked to the world at large.
"She must know you better than we do," I muttered too softly to be heard.
"You know what I told her?" he said, turning to Meade.
"Sure, Sally, you can have a divorce if you feel that way, but I'll be damned if I'll talk to some jerk of a shrink."
Meade pushed a plate of chicken wings at him. "Eat something, Ron."
"Little Lani knows better than to talk back to me. Hell, I might even hang on to her after my Thai connection comes through." He laughed so hard for a minute I thought he would choke. Meade leaned forward in a conspiratorial crouch and tipped another splash from the bottle of Wild Turkey into the admiral's drink, moving the comers of his mouth in a most unSanta-like twitch. I wondered what Meade was up to. A chill fell over me as if someone had turned the air conditioning down twenty degrees.
© Lynne Murray