The North Park Detective series continues.
SHORT STORY—By Thomas Shess—If ex-cop turned private detective Thomas Gresham had been asked if he had ever chased down a ghost before the answer would have been a simple no. But then again it wasn’t exactly a ghost that came visiting. He was chasing a cheating husband. He found the ghost by accident.
The couple’s two-story bungalow on Spruce Street east of San Diego’s famed Balboa Park was in the midst of an extensive remodeling. The exterior was neat, albeit in need of new paint, but satisfactory enough to allow its owners, Paul and Karen Kelly, to concentrate on renovating the inside of the 90 year old home--one room at a time. It was their first home and their first hobby. They both poured into available books and magazines eagerly exploring the early 20th century Arts & Crafts movement, the era when their Craftsman home was built.
Kelly, an average looking man of 35, who was ten years into his career as an architect, designed commercial high rises for a downtown firm that he didn’t own. Karen, a tall, sharp featured brunette, five years his junior, was an interior designer, who decided to return to college part time to obtain a degree in something more practical. She chose law, but had to postpone her enrichment once they learned she was pregnant.
The remodeling process for a while exercised and exorcised their demons for detail. The tedious part was deciding on who to hire for the most difficult work, such as carpentry for the rearranging of walls in the nursery and replacing the ancient plumbing and electrical components of the house.
Deciding which room would be the first to be remodeled was easy-- the nursery. Paul was on his hands and knees in the closet of the small bedroom. His right cheek was on the oak flooring when his very pregnant wife entered carrying a glass of lemonade.
“Interesting pose?” she offered.
“We have our first pet,” he said as he straightened up.
“Really? Should we name it?”
“It’s a mouse, not a big one, but it’s definitely a long-time tenant.”
They both glanced at the closet baseboard and noticed the flooring had sagged, allowing an opening large enough for the mouse to enter and exit to the crawlspace below the house.
“It’s a freeway on ramp,” he smiled and sipped on the lemonade. “From there the mouse can wander all thought the house through the walls and framing.”
“Are you still planning on going to the office tonight?” She understood his reason for working on a Sunday night, but she was hoping he might change his mind. He was finalizing a bid for a major project, he said.
Yet, absence made her feel insecure because lately, she began to feel something was wrong with the marriage. She suspected another woman but lacking proof, she dismissed her doubt as a mental cul de sac that some women find themselves visiting when they lose their figure to pregnancy.
The purpose of the reception at the upstairs gallery on University Avenue was to show off the artist’s modern oils to a post holiday invitation only crowd. Elliott Crawford’s work was popular enough—thanks to E-Bay-- to allow him to rent an upstairs suite that doubled as his live in loft and a sales office. His operation was in a vintage two-story white brick building at Granada and University Avenues.
The evening was chilly. San Diego’s winter was early. And, its tongue-in-cheek ferocity amounted to the usual quarter inch of rain per storm.
Paul and Karen Kelly were staring at one of Crawford’s abstracts when they noticed a man with well-groomed silver hair wearing a dark suit enter the studio. Karen soon dismissed any thoughts of ever buying one of Crawford’s massive space age abstractions. It clashed with a bungalow filled with plein air landscapes. She wondered why her husband would bring her to a gallery, where she knew no one, much less had an interest in the displayed art. “It was on the way to the Pekin Café,” he said. She loved classic American version of Chinese cuisine and the 70-year-old restaurant was her favorite.
Her attention went to her enormous belly. A jab of pain had registered high on her internal Richter scale.
It was her first painful contraction.
Paul Kelly missed the historic event. He was lifting hors d’oeuvres off the tray of a smiling waitress.
Karen stopped still. She went into full alert, however, when no further tremors occurred, she decided it was another pregnancy related aching muscle. Her attention returned to the art on the walls.
Working her way through the 15 guests, Amanda Youngston, the dark-haired artist’s assistant smiled at the couple. “Is there one you particularly like?”
“They’re all interesting,” Karen said with a straight face.
Paul Kelly glanced at the assistant’s excellent figure before he was distracted toward the entrance.
The assistant followed the architect’s eyes. “That’s our neighbor across the hall,” the blue-eyed brunette said casually. “He’s a private detective. He moved in a couple of weeks ago. I’m still waiting for his grand opening.”
“A real life private detective,” the architect smiled.
“Must be hard work?” she said
“How do you figure?” he asked.
“He’s got a full head of gray hair, yet he can’t be that old.”
The architect smiled.
“He’s a nice looking man,” she said turning back to look at Kelly. She caught him staring into her cleavage.
The artist’s assistant rolled her eyes and focused on other guests, hoping to sell a painting.
Paul Kelly wandered over to the punch bowl. Gresham, a half-head taller at six feet was pouring his second cup of the non-alcoholic drink.
“I was just told you’re a private detective.”
“Trying to be.”
They exchanged names and shook hands.
“It’s odd to me that with TV, movies and bookstores filled with detectives that you’re the first I’ve met.”
“Over rated profession.”
“Actually, I have a question for you.” Kelly said, “Stop me if this is too childish. But, I’ve been remodeling my house and when I was redoing the flooring in the nursery I found a rat’s nest in the walls. Paper was neatly torn and placed in a small corner. When I checked closer I saw a wallet stuck between the wood framing….”
“Mr. Kelly” It was Eliott Crawford waving earnestly. His voice was excited. “Come here, please.”
The architect immediately noticed his wife as sitting on the floor surrounded by all of the women in the studio.
“I think my contractions are really here this time,” she said.
Gresham looked through his open curtainless corner windows. Below was University Avenue, one of the oldest commercial arteries in San Diego.
A mid-afternoon breeze off of the ocean had washed the neighborhood. He inhaled deeply.
Shouting from next door caught his attention. The artist was arguing with his assistant.
It was only a few seconds later that there was a pounding on his opaque glass door.
Gresham saw her outline. “The door is open.”
Amanda Youngston entered barefoot and wrapped in a white terry cloth robe that was neatly cinched around her waist. She had been crying. The streaks on her face were still visible. Gresham was momentarily distracted by her new hair color. “Royal purple,” she said. “It’s the official color of Louis, the 16th.”
He was not going to debate her sources.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but I just had to get out of there.”
“What’s going on?” Gresham asked.
“Nothing as bad as it sounds.”
“Did he hit you?”
“No, he’s been painting nudes. And, when I pose for him, I end up having to fight him off.”
“There are laws against that.”
“Maybe so, but he pays me well. It only happens when he drinks.”
“That’s no excuse.’
“Maybe I can come to work for you?” The assistant sat on Gresham’s desk. The robe parted slightly revealing a pair of trim, and very white thighs. Just as quickly, she closed the robe over her legs and focused on Gresham.
“I don’t hire women to pose for me,” he said, “besides I can never understand painting nude women. Makes me think it’s a way for nerds to check out women then chase them around the room,” he said.
“Well, he sells his nudes for a lot of money. He can’t paint enough of them.”
“Why is he having an abstract show?”
“They ain’t selling and it’s pissing him off. Maybe he could sell some with this show. He’s started painting nudes again.”
Their attention shifted thanks to a polite knocking on the glass door. Gresham expected the artist. Instead, a tailored woman stood in the threshold. She looked vaguely familiar to him as they all smiled courteously.
Gresham rose to his feet, smiled and extended his hand. “Come in, come in.”
“If I’m interrupting. I can come back,” the sharp-faced woman said.
Gresham noticed a stare of recognition between the two women, a glance that was not warm. Then he remembered they probably met at the artist’s reception, where he met them both.
“No, you’re not interrupting because Amanda was just leaving.”
“That’s my cue,” Amanda slipped off the desk and excused herself.
Gresham waited until the smaller woman left his office. “She’s an artist’s model and she was taking a break. She works for the artist next door.”
“Yes, that’s where my husband met you both,” the visitor said.
Gresham pulled up a chair. “When was that?”
“At the artist reception around Thanksgiving. I was very pregnant. You might remember me going into labor.”
“Yes. Did everything work out?”
She smiled. “We have a very beautiful little girl.”
Gresham smiled. He sat in his chair behind the desk. “What can I do for you?”
Amanda’s exit was quick.
“When my husband met you we were working on our house. I think he mentioned he found a wallet.”
His memory was orbiting near Pluto. “No I don’t.”
“It had some money in it.”
Gresham was clueless.
“$500, but I’m afraid we spent it. “
Thoughts of a paying customer eluded Gresham.
Gresham watched her eyes. She was rambling. “But, my husband has opened his own architecture firm. He’s doing very well. He’s had to hire several people.”
Gresham’s hopes for a payday rose from the ashes.
“Yes,” she smiled. “We’ve been able to have a contractor actually finish the entire house for us.” Karen Kelly refocused. “I guess you’re wondering why I’m here?”
“I’m happy to see you. You look so different.” Gresham realized it was not the best conversation to have with a post-pregnant woman.
Gresham stared blankly.
“We named our little girl, Kennedy. I’ve always liked that name. I like the sound. I’m not that political. She’s six months old.”
Gresham was lost in this conversation. Six months ago he opened his office. He could count the number of paying customers on one hand and have three fingers left over.
Karen Kelly was not tremendously forthright. Despite her excellent smile and coloring, she had a cocker spaniel’s languid eyes. If there was more on her mind, but it appear quickly.
“What exactly can I do for you?” he asked to break an awkward pause.
As soon as Gresham’s new client left his office, Amanda returned. This time she was still barefoot, but dressed in a bare midriff blouse and a pair of tight denims. She was still barefooted.
“What did she want?”
“I’ve been hired to find the owner of a wallet.”
“Really? Is that all she wanted?”
Gresham didn’t answer.
“Must be an important wallet,” Amanda smiled when he flashed the check in front of her nose too quickly for her to see it was made out for $100. “Damn, you work cheaper than I do.”
“That’s all she had.”
“And you believed her?”
“Maybe of I had clients coming out of my ears, I could be picky.”
“I can make that in...”
Gresham stared at her.
She didn’t finish her sentence. Instead she said, “I was hoping you’d take me out to dinner?”
“I don’t think so. Crawford comes off a jealous man. He sounded a little green just now.”
“I don’t answer to him,” she smiled, “He’s a married man.”
“Just the same, I wouldn’t want to create a hassle, especially if you’re lovers.”
“Really? I hope I didn’t give you that impression.”
“No one’s more possessive than a married man with his mistress.”
“Jeez, you make a girl really work hard for a free dinner?”
“I just don’t want a war in the same building. It’s also tacky.”
“Are you married?” she smiled.
“Divorced?” she asked.
“Long time ago when I was in San Francisco.”
“You didn’t rebound by getting remarried right away?”
“No. Women like me but I don’t think I’m the kind they want to marry?”
“All of my great romances end the same way.”
“Oh, tell me, you have me curious,” she asked.
“It’s usually when they ask me to marry them.”
“That’s sound conceited. Are you afraid of commitment?”
“I’m afraid of hidden agendas,” he said. “Dishonesty bothers me.”
“How did we get from lack of commitment to dishonesty?”
“It seems dishonest for a woman to walk away from a relationship just because I don’t
want to get married. To me that smacks of a hidden agenda and she was not sincere to begin with. If you truly love someone it isn’t hot or cold. Relationships that are good ones have a lot of compromise and gray areas involved.”
“So does that mean I don’t get dinner?” she offered up a very mischievous grin.
Gresham let her choose the restaurant as long as it was outside of North Park.
The wallet was in rough shape when the couple found it. Karen Kelly explained that much of the contents had been severely chewed by the rats. But still intact they salvaged a small photograph of a young girl with the name Matty written on the back, plus a lumber company receipt and the five $100 bills that as mentioned had been spent by the couple. The rest was mattress material for countless generations of rodents.
Gresham called the historical society in Balboa Park, a mile square public park a mile from his office. When he explained the reason for the call, the voice on the other end of the phone recommended the public property deed office at the County Administration building.
Gresham returned to his office after a morning searching through ancient property deeds, many of which had not yet been computerized.
His search was made easier thanks to a tip from the clerk, who was assisting him. Residential building permits were listed by year. His clients didn’t know what year their home was built, but the clerk reported sidewalk contractors of the day were required to stamp their company name or initials, plus the year into the wet cement.
Gresham telephoned his client.
Karen Kelly knew the date stamped on her sidewalk was 1924.
Deed files revealed Charles Renn was the original owner in 1924 when the house was built. From the picture of “Matty,” Gresham guessed the girl was about 6 or 7 years. Most likely she would have attended Thomas Jefferson Elementary, Theodore Roosevelt Junior High and San Diego High School.
If Matty were still alive she’d be around 80 years old.
The school administrations refused to talk over the phone. Gresham was referred to the School Board and it was strongly suggested his request be put in writing.
Gresham had another idea.
He picked up the white pages of an old phone book that had been left behind by the previous office renter. A Matilda Renn was listed as living at 3619 Pershing Street.
|Airplane Bungalow style so called because early WWI builders |
said it looked like an old biplane
A visit was in order. Gresham discovered Pershing was four blocks west of his office and about four blocks south of University.
The two-story bungalow on Pershing was designed in the basic Arts & Crafts genre much like the rest of North Park. Only this home had Japanese curved flourishes along the exposed rafters.
The house’s second story was like a smaller house built on top of a big house. In the parlance of the neighborhood that style was called an airplane bungalow. World War I era airplanes had flat wings with a cockpit sitting on top of them. History is easy when you have a bored city clerk helping you dig through the archives.
Gresham knocked on the door.
An elderly woman answered after a second ring. She was as stately as the blue clapboard style house. Her silver hair was in a bun atop her head. She was wearing a dark blue housedress with a white apron.
“If you are selling anything, I’m afraid I really am not interested.”
“Does a Matilda Renn live here?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I was looking into the history of this house.”
The woman’s face turned red. “If you think you are going to sell me something or talk me out of my real estate because I’m an old woman, you better think twice. I don’t want to hear any of your shenanigans.”
“Are you Matty Renn?” Gresham said quickly as he held the photo at arm length so she could view it.
The irritation faded from her face. Her mouth formed a perfect zero. “Where did you find that?”
“A neighbor of yours found a wallet belonging to Charles Renn and because she’s a busy woman, she has hired me to find the owner.”
“Goodness, Charles Renn was my father. He’s been dead a long time,” she said as she wiped unseen grime off her fingers and on to the apron. “What neighbor?”
“The Kelly’s. They live in the 2800 block of Spruce.”
That’s on the other side of North Park, she offered. “What was the address, again?”
The woman’s hand moved carefully toward the photo. “That’s a photo of me. I remember to this day sitting for the photographer. She turned the photo to see the other side. “See? That’s his handwriting. My father wrote that. I lived in that house until I went to college.”
“It’s yours,” Gresham said and handed her the photograph.
She immediately clutched it with both hands to her chest.
Karen Kelly was amazed it only took a day to find the owner of the wallet. She was equally amazed that the then little girl was still alive.
|Claire de Lune coffeehouse across from Tom Gresham's detective agency|
The coffee house building had been renovated by a modern couple and returned to its 1929 splendor. The gold and red colors were a stark and beautiful contrast to the urban dullness of the shops still waiting for a renaissance.
Karen Kelly was sitting inside sipping on a caffe latte while she gently rolled the baby stroller back and forth. She introduced the sleeping baby to Gresham.
“She’s so pretty,” Mom cooed happily.
“She will destroy men with her looks in several counties.”
“Her brains will do that,” Karen snapped. The baby talk ceased. She wanted the details of my visit with Matty Renn.
“First of all, the woman is in remarkable shape. I want to look like her at 50, much less 85 years old. She’s sharp as they come.”
“Good. She doesn’t live too far away.”
“No. Her father did own the wallet. And, the Renn’s were the original owners of your house. I also learned that the designer of the house was a builder named Douglas Dunlap.”
“Yes, he built quite a few houses in North Park,” she said. “It’s a status symbol to own one of his homes.”
“Well, according to Matty, Dunlap was in love with Matty’s older sister, Julia. It seems old man Renn and the young builder argued frequently over Julia. At the time he was 30 and Julia was only 16. Eventually, Charles Renn fired the builder because one day Dunlap asked for an advance payment for work in progress. Renn refused. The next day Renn fired Dunlap for stealing from him.”
Karen Kelly nodded. “Good work. Did you give her the photograph? Yes, and she said, she would do anything to repay you.”
Karen Kelly smiled for the first time since Gresham met her. “I’m happy for her.”
Gresham grinned. “Renn accused Dunlap of stealing his wallet from the mantle of the fireplace where he had a habit of placing it. Obviously, Renn had dropped it elsewhere and the home’s construction crew unknowingly sealed it in the framing for decades until you found the wallet.”
“So all these years, Matty and her family believed the builder was a thief?”
“Julia never did, according to Matty, but because her father made such a ruckus over it she never saw Dunlap, again. Dunlap eventually left San Diego and went to work in Pasadena,” Gresham said.
Karen smiled. “You’re very good, Tom Gresham. Case closed. Now, I need you to tell my husband the same story. But, I need another favor.” She handed Gresham an envelope with a legal document inside, plus far more interesting was a personal check made out to him for a lot more than his original retainer.
Kelly & Associates was located on the 32nd floor of the Symphony Towers high rise on B Street, downtown. The view behind the blonde receptionist’s desk was of San Diego, the harbor bridge and Mexico’s Coronado Islands in the blue Pacific beyond.
Kelly’s offices still looked disheveled. Cardboard boxes filled with files and blueprints were shoved without order on every flat surface and floor space.
Gresham expected a lavish suite. Kelly’s office had no windows or view.
“I know why you’re here, Mr. Gresham, but I’d like to tell you there’s no need for your services anymore.“ He looked up from a set of blueprints.
Gresham looked surprised.
“I found out about you when I saw my wife had written you a check. I’ve been waiting for you,” the architect added, while avoiding eye contact.
Gresham said, “I have good news.”
“Don’t be so damn smug. I just left her a message on her office phone. If I hadn’t been so damn busy I would have told her a long time ago. And, frankly spending the money bothers me more than what I told her. Bottom line is, Mr. Gresham we won’t need your parasitical services anymore.”
Gresham continued to toy with him, “I don’t know where this conversation is headed but she asked me to personally tell about...”
The architect interrupted. “I’m sure she is getting some kind of satisfaction from this, but I already have admitted my relationship with Amanda Youngston. I apologized earlier today. I told her I made a big mistake and Amanda was a one-time fling. I’ve talked with Amanda and she has agreed to never see me, again. So, I think that will be all, Mr. Gresham.
The architect interrupted him. “Karen said you’ve been paid.”
“Yes, but I have another reason for being here?”
The architect rolled his eyes and stood up.
Gresham continued, “I found the owner of the wallet she hired me to find. She thought you’d like to hear the story?”
Paul Kelly’s face was red. He sat down slowly behind his desk. “What are you telling me?”
“Your wife hired me to find the owner of the wallet. She wanted to surprise you.”
“But, I thought she had hired you....”
“To spy on you? No, I’m afraid you jumped to that conclusion all by yourself.”
“Christ,” Kelly placed his palm against his forehead. “This day started out bad and it has just keeps getting worse.”
Gresham pulled out an envelope from his blazer jacket and handed it to Kelly.
“Let’s call it more bad news because I’ve just served you a subpoena. Your wife has known about your girl friend for a while and she’s suing you for divorce.”
Kelly hurled the unopened envelope across the room.
“Do you want to hear my wallet story?” Gresham asked. “I found the owner.”
“Get out of my office.”
Gresham bought some new furniture from the retainers he earned from Karen Kelly. He saw her in the Albertson’s super market several weeks later accompanied by her baby and her nanny. She was back in law school and Kennedy needed a change of diapers. She appeared resigned, if not happy, over her future.
“Join me for dinner sometime, Mr. Gresham?”
He smiled. “Of course.”
She never called. Gresham did see a pregnant Amanda Youngston for lunch before she moved to Pasadena with Paul Kelly.
“Thank you for driving with me,” Matty Renn said as we pulled through the gates of Mt. Hope cemetery near the city limits. The nicely kept cemetery was well organized. It was easy to find master builder Douglas Dunlap’s family.
“Look, he’s buried next to his wife and parents,” Matty said, “That’s nice. I’m sure he was very well loved.”
Gresham was holding a dozen white roses for Matty. He could only imagine her thoughts. His eyes focused on the beautiful morning. And, again he marveled at how beautiful she looked.
She cleared her throat and stared down at the builder’s grave. “Mr. Dunlap,” she said firmly. “On behalf of the Renn family and especially my father Charles Renn, I would like to apologize to you and your family for the injustice my family brought upon you in 1924. We are deeply sorry for my father’s actions. We can only defend what he did by understanding that in his own way he was trying to protect a daughter that he felt was too young to marry. But, nonetheless, what he accused you of was wrong. And, we sincerely regret any harm we caused you. And, I’m sure if Julia were with us she would agree because I don’t think she ever doubted you.”
Matty Renn took the roses from Gresham and placed them around the Dunlap family plot.
Gresham drove Matty’s car back toward North Park. It was then he asked: “Why didn’t you marry? If you wouldn’t have listed your maiden name in the phone book I never would have found you.”
“Hells bells, I’ve been married three times. Every five years they took turns dying on me--so I got so confused as to whose widow I was I took my father’s name, again. You men are all the same, just when you start amounting to something--you go off and do something stupid. Can I call you Tom?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, Tom, I hear North Park is a quite a beer scene. You think it proper if I offered to buy one for you? I’m told there’s a few good saloons on 30th Street.”
“Indeed, there are. But I don’t drink alcohol anymore.”
“Hells bells, Tom, we’re just going to have to fix that.”
Previous Tom Gresham North Park Detective short story--Old Bad Dream--appeared in this blog on
July 26, 2013. Next in the series--Men of the House-- will appear May 11, 2014.
Gresham is a fictional character appearing in a heretofore-unpublished novel by Thomas Shess. Prior to his recent arrival in San Diego, ex-policeman Tom Gresham resided in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, where he was on the bodyguard detail assigned to Mayor Joseph Martin.