When her old friend Mac Voorhies from California Fidelity Insurance comes to see private investigator Kinsey Millhone at her new office, he brings a case that he hopes will favorably close out his career as a claims adjuster. Several months previously, California Fidelity paid out half a million dollars on a life insurance policy on Wendell Jaffe. Jaffe had disappeared five years before under suspicious circumstances, after a real estate operation had failed, costing investors millions of dollars. His body never was found, leading to suspicion that he had kept some of his investors’ money and faked his own death. After waiting the statutorily required five years, his wife had him declared legally dead. Now he has been sighted at a hotel in Mexico, and Voorhies wants Millhone to verify that he is alive so that California Fidelity can reclaim its money.
Millhone soon finds Jaffe in Mexico, but he disappears again. In the wastebasket of Jaffe’s hotel room, Millhone finds a newspaper with a story about a jailbreak involving Jaffe’s teenage son, Brian. Armed with the name under which Jaffe has been traveling and guessing that he will try to help his son, she picks up the trail at the family’s home in central California. The remainder of her search involves interviewing Jaffe’s supposed widow, both of her sons, his business partner, and the woman with whom he has been living. Millhone finds Jaffe once again, but he gets away following an attack on both of them by a hidden gun-wielding assailant.
The attack opens a second line of investigation: Who is trying to kill Jaffe? Millhone’s sighting of him allows California Fidelity to recover what is left of its insurance payout, but Millhone continues to track Jaffe, wanting to know the whole story. His real estate swindle had left plenty of angry investors as suspects in the attack on him. In the process of sorting out motives and opportunities, Millhone comes to appreciate the familial ties among the Jaffes. A secondary story line has the occasionally gruff and hardened Millhone, who was orphaned as a small child, discovering a branch of her family and establishing contact. Her newfound family makes her question aspects of her own identity. Followers of the young investigator’s career will appreciate this further fleshing out of her character.