Mel Armino's Mercedes was just about where Jane said it would be, parked on a scenic overlook [of the Pacific Ocean]. I saw his towel among the stones and boulders of the crescent beach 40 feet below. The coast was a series of broad indentations, each hundreds of yards wide. Broad-fronted waves rolled through the scattered, outlying rock formations and into the semicircular basin where they swayed the submerged kelp before crashing into the rocky shore. After scanning the surface for a long time, I spotted the red tip of Mel's snorkel and the pattern of spray when he blew it out. Sometimes his face mask flashed in the sun.
He was working a line of semi-submerged boulders several hundred yards out. Although shielded from the three-foot waves, there would still be a danger of getting smashed against the rock by the back surge. He held his breath like a pro. Twice, I counted 90 seconds between when his fins went up in the air and the blast of spray from his snorkel that marked the dive's completion. After a quarter of an hour, he started making his way to shore.
Carefully, I descended a steep, narrow, rocky path and sat on a boulder a few yards from the spot where Mel had left his tennis shoes and folded towel. He made his approach to shore face down, breathing through his snorkel and timing his landing to the waves. Had to admire his skill and agility, getting out of those oversized flippers between waves and climbing four feet of rock and boulder.
He walked up to his spot and regarded me, wordlessly, while laying down a tire-iron and a net-bag with two giant abalone. He took off his weight belt and inflatable flotation vest. He was moderate height and build, but the black wet suit gave him an imposing look. He widened his stance and gestured for me to come.
A look at his face confirmed what I had guessed from his name — that he came from the same Italian gene pool as I. With his dark, wrap-around eyebrows, Mediterranean nose and black olive eyes, he would have fit well in Sicily. He pulled off his rubber hood, revealing a full head of straight, thick, black hair. "You came all the way out to California to talk to me about Peter Peterson?"
"In the neighborhood."
"Yes. Pete died a few weeks ago."
"Yes, you e-mailed me."
"I'm taking over his lab."
"That's what you e-mailed."
"You see, I'm also being paid to do a biography of Peter. He specified it in his will."
"Yeah, that's what you e-mailed me." Melvin Armino was a damn tough customer for a guy my age.
"I want to talk about your work with him."
"For your biography?" He regarded quizzically.
No bullshitting this guy. I'd have to give it to him straight. "I think he was murdered. He pissed a lot of people off. Animal Rights, Right to Life, or maybe someone at the med school." I would keep cool about the med school for right now. "There were threat letters. And someone broke into his apartment while I was working in it."
The guy showed absolutely no surprise at any of this.
"Are you connected with the police?"
"No. I used to work in the county M.E. lab, but I'm doing this on my own."
"Are you working for any private security outfit?"
"No, I'm doing this on my own."