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Authors: Bill Crider

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BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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T
here were three large buildings in the Talon Auto Complex, and Roy Don's office was located in the one in the center. When Jack opened the big glass door of the building, he felt a blast of frigid air that might have come direct from the North Pole.
“He must have the air conditioner set on
stun
,” Jack said.
“It feels just fine to me,” Sally said as they walked past the salesmen sitting at desks in their cubicles while they smoked filtered cigarettes and worked the phones with prospects they hoped to talk into buying cars similar to those sitting on the showroom floor, a bright red Toyota Celica and an equally shiny blue Corolla. The whole place smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and strongly of new rubber tires, leather upholstery, and whatever else made up that indefinable but highly seductive new-car smell. Jack felt an urge to get behind the wheel of the Celica and take off right through the plate-glass window and keep on going down the highway until somebody caught him. But he was in enough trouble already.
There was a semicircular counter in the middle of the large showroom, and a secretary sat behind it at a desk and switchboard. Before Jack and Sally could get to the secretary, however, they were accosted by a young man with slicked-back hair, tiny gold-rimmed oval glasses, a goatee, and a wide smile that was as bright as the cars. In a voice dripping with sincerity, he informed them that his name was Larry Hensley and that he was there to help them find
the car of their dreams. Just exactly what were they interested in?
“We don't want a car,” Jack said. “We're here to see Mr. Talon.”
Larry's face changed. The smile disappeared, and when he spoke his voice had lost ninety percent of its sincerity. If he couldn't sell them a car, Jack thought, they might as well be a homeless couple who'd just come in from living in a culvert under the highway, for all the consideration Larry would give them.
“Mr. Talon's office is back down that hall,” Larry said, nodding to a doorway on the far side of the semicircular counter.
“Thanks,” Jack said, but Larry had already turned away, headed back to his cubicle.
“Nice guy,” Jack said.
“Reminds me of a college administrator I once knew,” Sally said. “No one at Hughes, of course.”
“Of course,” Jack said.
They walked up to the counter and got a brilliant smile from the secretary. Jack wondered if everyone who worked for Talon had naturally white teeth or whether they'd all had laser work done on them.
“How may I help you?” she said.
Jack looked at Sally. He could tell that she was as impressed with the may as he was.
“We're here to see Mr. Talon,” he said.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Jack said. “But I think he'll see us. Just tell him it's two teachers from the college.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “I thought I recognized you. You're Mr. Neville.”
“That's right,” Jack said. She looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place her. “Were you in one of my classes?”
“It was three years ago,” she said. “My name's Jennie Fredrick. I had you for composition my first semester. You liked my paper on ‘A Rose for Emily.'”
“I remember,” Jack said, and he did. He had a better memory
for good essays than he did for faces. “You made the only A in the class.”
“I was so happy with that grade,” Jennie said. “I was afraid I wouldn't do well in college, but after that A I knew I was going to be all right.”
Jack felt a warm glow, not because of anything he'd done, but because Jennie was a reminder of one of the good things about being a community college teacher. A lot of students came and went, and sometimes they went before their first semester had hardly begun, never to be seen again. But sometimes they stuck around, even the ones who were doubtful at first, the ones who would have been lost at a big state university, and they found out that they could do the work. Not only could they do it, but they could do it well. All they needed was a chance.
“I'm going to graduate in the spring,” Jennie said. “Then I'm going to the University of Houston.”
“That's great,” Jack said, meaning it. “I'm sure you'll do well.”
“I am, too,” Jennie said. “I'll tell Mr. Talon that you're here.”
She said something into the mike of a headset so tiny that Jack hadn't really noticed it until that moment.
“You can go on back,” she said to Jack and Sally after getting some instructions through the headset. “It's the last door on the left.”
“Success story,” Sally said as they walked down the hall. “Makes you feel good, doesn't it?”
“It does,” Jack said. “It also makes me feel bad that I won't be in class on Monday. I guess Jennie hasn't heard the news about me yet.”
“What kind of positive attitude is that?” Sally asked.
“I keep forgetting.”
“I told you not to do that.”
“I'll do better,” Jack lied.
“Anyway” Sally said, “your name wasn't mentioned in the paper. There's no reason for Jennie to know you're in trouble.”
“She'll find out soon enough,” Jack said, opening the door into Roy Don Talon's office.
It swung back to reveal Roy Don Talon himself, seated behind a desk about the size of one of the New England states. He was wearing a bone-colored Stetson and a jacket that reminded Jack of something Buck Owens might have chosen from his wardrobe during the glory days of
Hee-Haw
to go with his red, white, and blue guitar. When Talon saw Jack and Sally, he stood up and came around the desk, his right hand extended.
“Glad to see you,” he said, offering his hand to Jack. “You, too, little lady. Dr. Good, right?”
Jack admired Sally's self-control as she said, “Yes, and you already know Jack Neville.”
“Recognized his face from somewhere, and I figured it was the college,” Talon said. Then he paused, and his face darkened as he stared at Jack. “Wait a minute. You're the son of a bitch that caused all the trouble about Ralph Bostic. Pardon my French, little lady.”
Sally's nostrils flared, and her eyes narrowed. Jack started to say something to her, but he didn't get the chance.
“I'm not little, I'm not a lady, and that's not French you're speaking,” she told Talon. “For that matter, Jack isn't a son of a bitch. I'm not so sure about you.”
Uh-oh,
Jack thought.
“Well, hell, then I apologize for calling him one,” Talon said. “But I remember that big fight at the board meeting.”
“As I recall, you weren't too fond of Ralph Bostic yourself.”
“He was a son of a bitch. Pardon my French. But that's no reason for some faculty member to attack him.”
Sally didn't argue the point. She said, “Maybe not. Anyway, we're here to talk to you about Bostic.”
Talon looked puzzled. He looked at Sally and then at Jack.
“I don't get it,” he said. “Why talk to me about him?”
“We think you might be able to help us,” Sally said.
“You don't think I killed Bostic, do you?”
Jack wasn't so sure, but it would never do to say so. He let Sally continue to do the talking.
“Of course not,” she said. “But you might have some helpful information.”
“I doubt that. Weems talked to me for an hour or so, and I have a couple of alibis that you couldn't break with a nine-pound hammer. But why don't we sit down if we're going to talk about it.”
Talon went back behind his desk, and Jack and Sally sat in two red leather chairs that were more comfortable than they looked.
“About that alibi,” Sally said.
“I'll be damned. Pardon my French. Or whatever. You do think I killed old Ralph.”
“No,” Jack said, though it wasn't entirely true. “We just want to hear your alibi.”
“Sure you do. Don't blame you. The cops are likely to think you did it since you had that fight with him. Only natural to want to pin the blame on someone else.”
“I'm not trying to pin the blame,” Jack said.
“Sure you're not. Anyway, my wife and I were celebrating our anniversary up at Cafe Annie in Houston. We dropped a big wad of dough for the meal, and it's on a credit card. That's alibi number one. We eat up there every now and then, whenever there's a special occasion, and I'm a big tipper, so the waiter remembers me. That's number two. Rock solid.”
So that was that, Jack thought, waiting for Sally to think of the next question.
“What about the trouble your dealership is in?” she asked.
Talon leaned back in his chair, looking a little more relaxed than he probably was.
“Trouble?” he said. “What kind of trouble?”
“Oh, you know,” Sally said. “Money trouble, lawsuit trouble. That kind of trouble.”
Talon leaned forward, resting his arms on the desk. He didn't look relaxed now, not at all.
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“I think you do,” Sally said.
Jack thought so, too, but Talon wasn't talking. He just sat there staring at them. For some reason, Jorge's name popped into Jack's head, and he said, “Do you know Jorge Rodriguez?”
Talon's head jerked. Jack could tell that he knew Jorge, all right. But Talon didn't admit a thing. What he said was, “Who the hell is that?”
“He heads up the college's prison program,” Jack said. “I'm sure he's been at board meetings. He's probably addressed the board more than once.”
“Oh,” Talon said. “Him.”
“Right,” Jack said, not looking at Sally. “Him.”
“Sure I know him. He's been around the board meetings. I've met him. What does he have to do with anything?”
Jack wished he knew. There must have been a reason he'd thought of Jorge, other than the fact that Sally was sitting there, but he couldn't think of what the reason might be. He also couldn't think of any reason why Jorge's name would upset Talon, but it did.
There was an uncomfortable silence that seemed to Jack to drag on long enough for glaciers to form and for one-celled animals to evolve into complex life forms. No one seemed to want to look at anyone else in the room.
Finally Sally said, “I don't suppose Mr. Rodriguez has anything to do with this. And it doesn't appear that you have any information that will help us.”
She stood up, and Jack, figuring that they were throwing in the towel, stood up as well. He wondered if there was air-conditioning in prison, and if prison food was as bad as everyone said it was. He wondered how he'd adjust to steel toilets in the middle of the room. He wondered if he'd survive beyond the first week. Probably not.
“Thank you for seeing us,” Sally said to Talon.
“My pleasure,” Talon said, standing up behind his desk. He made no move to come around it and shake hands with Jack again, and
it was clear that the meeting had been no pleasure for him, no matter what he said. “I wish I could help you, but you can see why I can't.”
“Yes,” Sally said. “But thanks anyway. Are you ready to go, Jack?”
Jack just nodded and followed Sally out into the hall. The door closed noiselessly behind them, but in Jack's imagination it clanged shut like one of the electric gates at the entrance to a prison unit. He wondered how he'd look in a white cotton uniform and how long it would be before someone beat him to a pulp or slipped a shiv between his ribs in the shower.
He wished again that he'd never signed up for that knife-making class.
A
s they walked back down the hall, Sally noticed that Jack's shoulders were slumped and there was no spring in his step. He was shuffling along like a man taking his final walk to the death chamber.
“Remember, Jack,” she said. “Positive thinking.”
Jack didn't raise his head or stop his shuffling.
“That's easy for you to say.”
“It's easy only because I have a plan.”
Jack didn't appear exactly ecstatic over her announcement, but he did stop and look at her.
“A plan?” he said.
“That's right, a plan. We're going to find out what we came here for. Trust me.”
“Right. Positive thinking.” He tried a smile that didn't come off too well. “Just call me Mr. Jolly.”
Sally didn't respond. When they reached the semicircular counter, she stopped.
“When's your break?” she asked Jennie.
Jennie looked at her watch.
“In about ten minutes,” she said. “Why?”
“We'd like to talk to you if we could. Is there somewhere private we could go?”
“There's usually never anybody in the employees' lounge except
me,” Jennie said. “We could talk there. What would we talk about?”
“We'll tell you when you go on break,” Sally said. “Come on, Jack.”
She led him to a place where customers waited while salesmen “talked to the sales manager” to negotiate a better deal for them. In reality, Sally was sure that the salesmen and the manager didn't negotiate anything. Maybe they talked sports, or maybe they told jokes—probably many of them at the expense of anyone foolish enough to believe it was possible to get any kind of good deal when buying a car.
There was a low table with a few automotive magazines scattered on it, and the chairs weren't as comfortable as the ones in Talon's office, but Sally and Jack sat down anyway.
“What's the deal?” Jack asked morosely. He seemed to have forgotten that he was Mr. Jolly.
“The deal is that we're going to talk to Jennie,” Sally said. “I should have thought of it sooner.”
“Why her?” Jack asked.
“Why her? Who knows everything that goes on in any place of business? Who did we go to at the college when we wanted the down-and-dirty scoop?”
“Wynona,” Jack said. Then it dawned on him. “The secretary.”
“Right. I'll bet Jennie knows more gossip than anyone in this place. If we'd known you had a former student working here as a secretary, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time.”
“But we didn't know,” Jack pointed out.
“It doesn't matter. We know now. And she'll tell us what she knows because she likes you.”
“I'm not sure that's ethical,” Jack said.
“Ethical? You're worried about going to prison, and you're thinking about ethics?”
“I wasn't thinking,” Jack said.
“Never mind. Of course it's ethical. Would it be any less ethical if she didn't like you?”
“I guess not.”
“Then don't worry about it.”
“I won't. And I'm sorry about bringing Jorge into this. I don't know why I did it.”
“Don't worry about that either. I think you had a good reason.”
“I wish you'd tell me what it is, then,” Jack said.
Sally started to tell him, but Jennie came over and said she could go on her break. They followed her to the lounge, which happened to be on the same hall as Talon's office.
As Jennie had promised, there was no one in the room. It was furnished with a couch, a soft drink machine, a snack food machine, and a table covered with the same kind of magazines that had been on the table where Sally and Jack had been sitting, except that these were more recent issues. Someone had carved his initials in the tabletop.
“Anybody want a drink?” Jack asked. “Or a candy bar?”
Sally wondered if he was being a smart-aleck but decided he wasn't. Besides, she never turned down a Hershey bar. Unfortunately there wasn't one in the snack machine.
“They melt,” Jack said when she mentioned it. “That's why you hardly ever see them in machines. How about some M&Ms?”
M&Ms were second best, but they would do in a pinch.
“And a Diet Coke,” Sally said. “How about you, Jennie?”
“I'll have a Dr Pepper, thank you. No candy, though.”
Jack bought some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for himself and some M&Ms for Sally. Then he bought two Dr Peppers and a Diet Coke.
When everyone was settled and had managed to get the tops off their plastic bottles without spraying soda all over the room, Sally said, “Jennie, have you heard anything about Mr. Neville's trouble with the police?”
Jennie's eyes widened, and she put her Dr Pepper bottle down on the table.
“No,” she said. “I hadn't heard anything like that.”
Sally briefly outlined the situation, and Jennie's eyes got wider with each new revelation.
“Goodness,” she said when Sally had finished. “There was something about Mr. Bostic on TV last night, but they didn't mention you, Mr. Neville.”
“Which is a good thing,” Jack said.
“I don't know why they suspect you, Mr. Neville,” Jennie went on. “Anyone would know you'd never do something like that.”
“Thanks, Jennie,” Jack said. “It's too bad the police don't agree with you.”
“You might be able to help us convince the police that they're wrong,” Sally said, and asked Jennie if she knew about the problems at the dealership.
“Oh, sure,” Jennie said. “We're not supposed to talk about it, though.”
“In this case, I think you can make an exception.”
Jennie took a swallow of her Dr Pepper and said, “Okay. I don't see what the big deal is, anyway. It's just as wrong to think Mr. Talon could do something dishonest as to think Mr. Neville could.”
Sally popped a couple of M&Ms, blue and yellow. She didn't necessarily agree with Jennie's observation. She believed that car dealers would do just about anything for a buck, but this wasn't the time to go into that.
“Maybe telling us about the problems would help Mr. Talon, too,” she said. “You never know what we might be able to do if someone will just give us the right information.”
“I'll tell you, then,” Jennie said. “It's something about stolen cars.
“Someone's been stealing cars from the dealership?” Jack asked.
“No, that's not it. Someone's been stealing our customers' cars from their homes. It took the police a long time to figure out that all the stolen cars were repaired at the same dealership, but they finally did. They haven't actually accused Mr. Talon of anything, but they've been pretty mean to him from what I've heard about it. They haven't found any of the cars, either. It's a big deal in
Houston, but there hasn't been much about it in the paper yet.”
“Why is it a big deal in Houston?” Jack asked.
“That's where the cars are being stolen, mostly. Not many customers from here have had a problem.”
“No wonder,” Jack said. “Then the cops would have known that all the cars were from the same place. There isn't any other place.”
“Lots of people buy cars in Houston,” Jennie said. “Mr. Talon doesn't like it, but they do.”
Sally nodded absently. Things were beginning to fall into place, though not the way she had hoped.
“Do you know Mr. Rodriguez?” she asked Jennie.
“From the college?”
“Yes. He's in charge of the prison programs.”
“I never had him for a class or anything, but I know who he is.”
“Have you ever seen him here at the dealership?”
“Once,” Jennie said. “I work the late shift sometimes, and he was in here one night last week, just before everyone left. Everyone but Mr. Talon, that is. Sometimes he stays late, and Mr. Rodriguez came by to see him just before I went home. They were still in Mr. Talon's office when I left.”
Sally finished the last of the M&Ms and drank the rest of her Diet Coke. She set the bottle on the table by the initials and said, “I guess that's what we wanted to know, Jennie. Thanks for your help.”
“I hope you won't tell Mr. Talon that I talked to you about anything. He wouldn't appreciate it that I told you about the cars.”
“We won't say a word. You don't have to worry about that. Are you ready, Jack?”
Jack was looking down at the initials on the desk. He put his bottle down and ran his finger over the carved letters.
“I don't know who did that,” Jennie said. “It happened before I came to work here.”
“I wasn't wondering who did it,” Jack said. “I guess we should go now. Thanks, Jennie.”
“I hope I've helped,” Jennie said.
“You have,” Sally said. “Believe me, you have.”
“Good,” Jennie said.
Sally wasn't so sure how good it was, not for Jorge and Talon. They were going to be the ones in trouble now.
BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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