Chapter Four

The Israeli-American sighed, realizing resistance was futile, and pulled the book closer. She skimmed through the pages a little before beginning to read aloud.

I went into the office early to type up my initial notes for Nikki's file, indicating briefly what I'd been hired to do and the fact that a check for five thousand dollars had been paid on account. Then I called Charlie Scorsoni's office. His secretary said he had some free time midafternoon, so I set up an appointment for 3:15 and then used the rest of the morning to do a background check. When interviewing someone for the first time, it's always nice to have a little information up your sleeve. A visit to the county clerk's office, the credit bureau, and the newspaper morgue gave me sufficient facts to dash off a quick sketch of Laurence Fife's former law partner. Charles Scorsoni was apparently single, owned his own home, paid his bills on time, did occasional public-speaking stints for worthy causes, had never been arrested or sued—in short, was a rather conservative, middle-aged man who didn't gamble, speculate on the stock market, or jeopardize himself in any way. I had caught glimpses of him at the trial and I remembered him as slightly overweight. His current office was within walking distance of mine.

The building itself looked like a Moorish castle: two stories of white adobe with windowsills two feet deep, inset with wrought-iron bars, and a corner tower that probably housed the rest rooms and floor mops. Scorsoni and Powers, Attorneys-at-Law, were on the second floor. I pushed through a massive carved wooden door and found myself in a small reception area with carpeting as soft underfoot as moss and about the same shade. The walls were white, hung with watercolors in various pastels, all abstract, and there were plants here and there; two plump sofas of asparagus green wide-wale corduroy sat at right angles under a row of narrow windows.

The firm's secretary looked to be in her early seventies, and I thought at first she might be out on loan from some geriatric agency. She was thin and energetic, with bobbed hair straight out of the twenties and "mod" glasses replete with a rhinestone butterfly on the lower portion of one lens. She was wearing a wool skirt and a pale mauve sweater, which she must have knit herself, as it was a masterpiece of cable stitches, wheat ears, twisted ribs, popcorn stitches, and picot appliqué. She and I became instant friends when I recognized the aforementioned—my aunt having raised me on a regimen of such accomplishments—and we were soon on a first-name basis. Hers was Ruth; nice biblical stuff.

Noticing DiNozzo was grinning like an idiot, Ziva frowned at him and kicked him in the shin. "Knock it off."

He winced, rubbing his leg. "I can't help it. This is one funny P.I."

"As much as it pains me to, I agree with him," McGee said.

Thwack!

"Ow!" both agents whined, rubbing their sore heads.

"How 'bout both of you, shut up." That was Gibbs, of course.

Ziva rolled her eyes and continued:

She was a chatty little thing, full of pep, and I wondered if she wasn't about perfect for Henry Pitts. Since Charlie Scorsoni was keeping me waiting, I took my revenge by eliciting as much information from Ruth as I could manage without appearing too rude. She told me she had worked for Scorsoni and Powers since the formation of their partnership seven years ago. Her husband had left her for a younger woman (fifty-five) and Ruth, on her own for the first time in years, had despaired of ever finding a job, as she was then sixty-two years old, "though in perfect health," she said. She was quick, capable, and of course was being aced out at every turn by women one-third her age who were cute instead of competent.

"The only cleavage I got left, I sit on," she said and then hooted at herself. I gave Scorsoni and Powers several points for their perceptiveness. Ruth had nothing but raves for them both. Still her rhapsodizing hardly prepared me for the man who shook my hand across the desk when I was finally ushered into his office forty-five minutes late.

Charlie Scorsoni was big, but any excess weight I remembered was gone. He had thick, sandy hair, receding at the temples, a solid jaw, cleft chin, his blue eyes magnified by big rimless glasses. His collar was open, his tie askew, sleeves rolled up as far as his muscular forearms would permit. He was tilted back in his swivel chair with his feet propped up against the edge of the desk, and his smile was slow to form and smoldered with suppressed sexuality. His air was watchful, bemused, and he took in the sight of me with almost embarrassing attention to detail. He laced his hands across the top of his head. "Ruth tells me you have a few questions about Laurence Fife. What gives?"

"I don't know yet. I'm looking into his death and this seemed like the logical place to start. Mind if I sit down?"

He gestured with one hand almost carelessly, but his expression had changed. I sat down and Scorsoni eased himself into an upright position.

"I heard Nikki was out on parole," he said. "If she claims she didn't kill him, she's nuts."

"I didn't say I was working for her."

"Well it's for damn sure nobody else would bother."

"Maybe not. You don't sound too happy about the idea."

"Hey listen. Laurence was my best friend. I would have walked on nails for him." His gaze was direct and there was something bristly under the surface—grief, misdirected rage. It was hard to tell what.

"Did you know Nikki well?" I asked.

"Well enough I guess." The sense of sexuality that had seemed so apparent at first was seeping away and I wondered if he could turn it off and on like a heater. Certainly his manner was wary now.

"How did you meet Laurence?"

"We went to the University of Denver together. Same fraternity. Laurence was a playboy. Everything came easily to him. Law school, he went to Harvard, I went to Arizona State. His family had money. Mine had none. I lost track of him for a few years and then I head he'd opened his own law firm here in town. So I came out and talked to him about going to work for him and he said fine. He made me a partner two years later."

"Was he married to his first wife then?"

"Yeah, Gwen. She's still around town someplace but I'd be a little careful with her. She ended up bitter as hell and I've heard she's got surly things to say about him. She had a dog-grooming place up on State Street somewhere if that's any help. I try to avoid running into her myself."

He was watching me steadily and I got the impression that he knew exactly how much he would tell me and exactly how much he would not.

"What about Sharon Napier? Did she work for him long?"

"She was here when I hired on, though she did precious little. I finally ended up hiring a girl of my own."

"She and Laurence got along okay?"

"As far as I know. She hung around until the trial was over and then she took off. She stiffed me for some money I'd advanced against her salary. If you run into her, I'd love to hear about it. Send her a bill or something just to let her know I haven't forgotten old times."

"Does the name Libby Glass mean anything to you?"

"Who?"

"She was the accountant who handles your business down in L.A. She worked for Haycraft and McNiece."

Scorsoni continued to look blank for a moment and then shook his head. "What's she got to do with it?"

"She was also killed with oleander right about the time Laurence died," I said. He didn't seem to react with any particular shock or dismay. He made a skeptical pull at his lower lip and then shrugged.

"It's a new one on me but I'll take your word for it," he said.

"You never met her yourself?"

"I must have. Laurence and I shared the paperwork but he had most of the actual contact with the business managers. I pitched in occasionally though, so I probably ran into her at some point."

"I've heard he was having an affair with her," I said.

"I don't like to gossip about the dead," Scorsoni said.

"Me neither, but he did play around," I said carefully. "I don't mean to push the point, but there were plenty of women who testified to that at the trial."

Scorsoni smiled at the box he was drawing on his legal pad. The look he gave me then was shrewd.

"Well, I'll say this. One, the guy never forced himself on anyone. And two, I don't believe he would get himself involved with a business associate. That was not his style."

"What about his clients? Didn't he get involved with them?"

"No comment."

"Would you get in bed with a female client?" I asked.

"Mine are all eighty years old so the answer is no. I do estate planning. He did divorce." He glanced at his watch and then pushed his chair back. "I hate to cut this short but it's four-fifteen now and I have a brief to prepare."

"Sorry. I didn't meant to take up your time. It was nice of you to see me on such short notice."

Scorsoni walked me out toward the front, his big body exuding heat. He held the door open for me, his left arm extending up along the doorframe. Again, that barely suppressed male animal seemed to peer out through his eyes. "Good luck," he said. "I suspect you won't turn up much."

...

I picked up the eight-by-ten glossies of the sidewalk crack I'd photographed for California Fidelity. The six shots of the broken concrete were clear enough. The claimant, Marcia Threadgill, had filed for disability, asserting that she'd stumbled on the jutting slab of sidewalk that had been forced upward by a combination of tree roots and shifting soil. She was suing the owner of the craft shop whose property encompassed the errant walkway. The claim, a "slip and fall" case, wasn't a large one—maybe forty-eight hundred dollars, which included her medical bills and damages, along with compensation for the time she'd been off work. It looked like the insurance company would pay, but I had been instructed to give a cursory look on the off chance that the claim was trumped-up.

Ms. Threadgill's apartment was in a terraced building set into a hill overlooking the beach, not that far from my place. I parked my car about six doors down and got my binoculars out of the glove compartment. By slouching down on my spine, I could just bring her patio into focus, the view clear enough to disclose that she wasn't watering her ferns the way she ought. I don't know a lot about houseplants, but when all the green things turn brown, I'd take it as a hint. One of the ferns was that nasty kind that grow into little gray hairy paws that begin, little by little, to creep right out of the pot. Anyone who'd own a thing like that probably had an inclination to defraud and I could just picture her hefting a twenty-five pound sack of fern mulch with her alleged sprained back. I watched her place for an hour and a half but she didn't show. One of my old cohorts used to claim that men are the only suitable candidates for surveillance work because they can sit in a parked car and pee discreetly into a tennis-ball can, thus avoiding unnecessary absences. I was losing interest in Marcia Threadgill and in truth, I had to pee like crazy, so I put the binoculars away and found the nearest service station on my way back into town.

Ziva paused and glared at the guys—minus Gibbs and Ducky—and Abby, who were laughing so hard they could barely breathe. "Really, it's not that silly!"

"Funny," Tony corrected.

"Same difference. Now would you shut up? The chapter's almost over, anyway."

There was a moment while Tim, Tony, Palmer, and Abby recovered sufficiently enough for the former Mossad officer to continue.

I stopped in at the credit bureau again and talked to my buddy who lets me peek into files not ordinarily made public. I asked him to see what he could find out about Sharon Napier and he said he'd get back to me. I did a couple of personal errands and then went home. It had not been a very satisfying day but then most of my days are the same: checking and cross-checking, filling in blanks, detail work that was absolutely essential to the job but scarcely dramatic stuff. The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years. I sat down at my desk and consigned Charlie Scorsoni to several index cards. It had been an unsettling interview and I had a feeling that I wasn't done with him.

Finally relieved that it was over, Ziva set the book down and pushed it into the center. "Whoever wants it, come get it."

They all stepped back, except for Jimmy, who was left standing at the table looking at the book. Then realization set in and he groaned, "You gotta be kidding me."

"Nope," Tony said with a grin. "Start reading, Autopsy Gremlin."

"Do I have a choice?"

"No."