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Authors: Bill Crider

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BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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O
n her way out of the building, Sally stopped by the mail room. She wasn't really interested in picking up her mail. It was just that she was in the habit of checking it every day when she left. When she went in, Jorge Rodriguez was standing by his mailbox, removing one of the familiar brown envelopes used for campus mail.
“You're here awfully late,” he said, looking Sally's way.
There was nothing in Sally's mailbox, and she was sorry she'd stopped by. There were two people she really didn't want to see at that moment. One of them was Fieldstone. The other was Jorge.
“I guess you know why,” she said.
She didn't know exactly why she said it. She certainly hadn't intended to. Even if she'd wanted to discuss the topic with Jorge, she wouldn't ordinarily have put it that way. There was just something about him that flustered her.
Jorge didn't seem bothered. He stuck the envelope back in the box and said, “Why don't we go sit down in the lounge and have a talk.”
Sally didn't want to go anywhere with Jorge, but it would have been rude to refuse. Sally usually tried not to be rude to anyone, something she blamed on her mother, who had spent a large part of Sally's childhood giving Sally detailed instructions about how a “lady” behaved. The only trouble with the instructions was that
the world these days didn't have much use for the kind of women her mother had considered “ladies.”
“All right,” she said, telling herself that there was really nothing to worry about, even if Jorge was a killer. There might not be anyone around, but Jorge wouldn't try anything right there in the faculty lounge since anyone could walk in at any time, even on a Friday afternoon. “What did you want to talk about?”
Jorge didn't say anything. He just led the way into the adjoining room, which was furnished a little like a dentist's waiting room except that the magazines were older and more esoteric.
“Let's sit down,” Jorge said.
Sally sat on the couch while Jorge sat in one of the forbidding chairs. Sally wasn't exactly uncomfortable at being alone with him, but she found herself thinking about the fact that Jorge had, after all, served time in prison for murder and that he might very well have been the person in the welding mask. She looked at his shoes. Black. And his pants. Black. He could have been the one, all right.
And then she found herself thinking about how attractive he was, prison record or no. She wished she hadn't stopped in the mail room.
“I know what you're thinking,” Jorge said.
Sally sincerely hoped not. She smiled weakly and said, “And are you going to tell me what it is?”
“You're thinking that I'm a killer,” Jorge said.
Sally tried not to look shocked, but she didn't quite succeed.
“And you're wondering about Ralph Bostic,” Jorge said. “About whether I killed him or not. Probably everybody's wondering. Sure, I didn't like the guy. In fact, I thought he was a scumbag. He was ripping off the school, and at the same time he was posing as Mr. Fiscal Responsibility. I really can't stand people like that. I might be a lot of things, but I'm not a hypocrite.”
Sally didn't know what to say to that, so she didn't say anything at all.
“You've heard the stories about why I was in prison, I guess,” Jorge said.
Sally just nodded. One of the more popular renditions of Jorge's story had it that Jorge had come home from work early one day, caught his wife in bed with another man, and killed her lover with his bare hands. Sally didn't think much of that version. It wasn't that she didn't believe Jorge could do it. Just one look at his hands was all it had taken to convince her that it was all too possible. What she couldn't believe was that anyone married to Jorge would have to find another lover.
Another story was that Jorge had taken a baseball bat and beaten to death the man who had raped his sister. All things considered, that was the version that Sally preferred. It still wasn't pretty, but to her mind it portrayed Jorge as being at least as sinned against as much as sinning. Or something close to that.
Sally couldn't think of a way to put any of that into words, or at any rate, words that were appropriate to the situation, so she just said, “I've heard things, yes.”
“I'll bet.” Jorge grimaced. “Well, the truth of it doesn't matter much anymore. I did the crime, and I did the time, as we like to say in the joint. But the point is, I don't want to go back.”
“And you're telling me this because … ?”
“Because I know you and Jack Neville have been talking to Weems. You know how I felt about Bostic, and I wouldn't want you to give Weems the wrong impression.”
“What about Ray Thomas?” Sally asked. “How did you get along with him?”
“Ray? What's he got to do with this?”
He looked genuinely puzzled to Sally, but the people who taught in the prison units had a saying about the ability of inmates to fool people:
Why do you think they call them
cons? So maybe he wasn't as puzzled as he seemed.
“It's just something I need to know,” Sally said.
“All right, why not? Maybe you haven't heard the story, since it happened before you came here, but Ray and I had some trouble a few years ago. You couldn't say that we were friends.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“He was teaching the automotive classes at the prison, and I found out that he was carrying in contraband.”
Sally immediately thought of dope smuggled in boot heels, or stamps (as good as money in prison) concealed in hollowed-out paperback books, cigarettes (banned on all prison units) hidden in defective auto parts.
“What was he smuggling?” she asked.
“Candy bars.”
Sally couldn't believe she'd heard correctly.
“Candy bars?” she said.
“That's right. He was taking them inside in his boots. He said he was eating them himself, on his breaks, but no one believed him. The wardens didn't trust him anymore, probably with good reason, so he lost his job in the prison.”
“That doesn't seem like such a bad thing. He's teaching on campus now, so it's not like he was out of work, and the atmosphere is bound to be more pleasant.”
“That's true, and it's also true that he has a good job, but he's not making as much money as he did in the prison. He was on a twelve-month contract there, but here he gets to work only nine months of the year. He doesn't have classes in the summer to make anything extra.”
“And he blamed you for his losing the job?”
“That's right, and I don't mind taking credit for it. He broke the rules, and he got what he deserved. In fact, if I'd had my way, he wouldn't be teaching here at all.”
“That all happened a long time ago,” Sally said. “Does he still dislike you?”
“He's not the kind to forget.”
“So have you seen him lately?”
“Not for a while. We don't socialize much. Why are you so interested in him?”
“Because somebody killed him this afternoon,” Sally said.
Jorge looked taken aback, and Sally reminded herself that he might be feigning surprise for her benefit, though she didn't see
how anyone could do such a good job of pretending.
“And you think I had something to do with it?” Jorge said.
“No,” Sally said, hoping she sounded more convinced than she felt. “But I had to ask.”
“I understand,” Jorge said, but Sally could tell he was disappointed. She just hoped there was no sinister significance to his question.
He got up from the chair and moved over to the couch, taking a seat beside her. She didn't know whether to say something or to get up and move, so she did neither. Jorge looked at her earnestly with his big black eyes and took her hand in both of his. She felt her heartbeat accelerate, and she got very warm. She wondered if there might be some problem with the air conditioner.
“Sally,” he said, “I have to tell you something.”
Sally swallowed but couldn't speak, so she just nodded her assent.
“It's important to me that you realize my complete innocence in what happened to Ralph Bostic,” Jorge said. “And I didn't even know about Thomas until you told me. Prison was in one way the best thing that ever happened to me, but I don't want to go back there, not ever, except as part of my job.”
Sally swallowed and found that she could speak again. She said, “How could prison be the best thing that ever happened to anyone?”
“It's where I learned the value of education,” Jorge said. “I dropped out of school as a kid because I didn't see any reason to keep going. I had friends, I had a job, so what did I need school for? It didn't mean a thing to me. And you know where that got me: right into prison. It was college that got me out. I got my GED, and then I started taking the HCC classes. I found out that I was pretty good when it came to doing things like working math problems and writing English papers. I found out I even liked those things. Too bad I didn't find out sooner. Anyway, you know the rest. I got my degrees, and I was a changed man. If everyone could have the chance I had, the prisons would be empty. And I want to help people see that. I can't do it if I'm back inside.”
“But you didn't kill anyone,” Sally said in what she hoped was a firm, confident voice, though she suspected it wasn't.
“Exactly,” Jorge said. “But it might look suspicious to Weems that I had trouble with Bostic. And Thomas, too. I can't believe someone killed him.”
“You can believe it,” Sally said. “I saw him.”
“I'm sure you did, but it's not easy to take it all in. Two deaths in one day. That's pretty scary.”
If it scares you,
Sally thought,
imagine how I feel.
She didn't think it would be a good idea to say that, however, so she said, “What kind of job did you have before you went to prison? I know it must not have been in education.”
“No,” Jorge said. “It wasn't. It was nothing like that.”
He stopped speaking and released Sally's hand, though she could still feel a bit of the heat.
“Well,” she said, “what was it?”
“I was an auto mechanic,” he said.
S
ally had always thought Hughes was a pretty little town. It was located at the juncture of state highways 6 and 288, not too many miles from Houston in one direction and Galveston in another. It still had a small-town atmosphere, but that was changing. Developers had discovered that people would pay plenty for big houses only a short commute from Houston. Already houses were appearing everywhere, seemingly overnight, and it wouldn't be long before Hughes would become just another big, impersonal bedroom community.
Sally wasn't sure she liked what was happening, but there wasn't much she could do about it. When you lived near a place like Houston, change and growth were inevitable.
Sally even liked the hot, humid climate. It wasn't much good for manmade things, but it was certainly good for human skin. In the desert, skin dried out and wrinkled, but in the humidity associated with the Gulf Coast, skin stayed soft and pliable almost forever. Sally figured she was saving a fortune on moisturizers alone.
Plants loved the climate, too. Oleanders and crape myrtles blossomed with little encouragement and less care. Grass grew thickly on the lawns. Huge oak trees, some of which must have been at least a hundred years old, put out long branches that made a canopy over many of the streets. Of course now that Hughes was growing, the people who wanted to open new businesses or build new
houses were cutting down as many of the trees as they possibly could, clearing land for parking lots and megastores, but it would be a while before all the trees were gone. There were too many of them, or at least so Sally hoped.
She drove down one of the oak-lined streets, thinking about Jorge. The fact that he'd been an auto mechanic was just a coincidence, she told herself, just like the fact that auto repair seemed to have so many connections to the two murders. Jorge had been so sincere about his innocence and his desire to stay out of prison that no one could have doubted him.
Well, Sally admitted, that probably wasn't true. Weems would doubt him. Weems doubted everyone as a professional habit. And Sally knew that she might very well be prejudiced in Jorge's favor, just because he was attractive to her. As much as she hated to admit it, she
was
attracted to him. It didn't seem right that she was, considering that he'd never showed the slightest interest in her, and especially considering that she more or less had a date with Jack Neville, whom some people were already calling her “boyfriend.” What a stupid word. Jack was hardly a boy. But if you compared him to Jorge, she thought, the word didn't seem so stupid after all.
Sally looked up to see that she was just about to pass Mae Wilkins's house. There was another coincidence. Though it was possible to pass by Mae's house on her way home, Sally seldom went down this particular street, and she'd gone down it today for no reason that she could call to mind. Maybe it was her unconscious at work. Maybe she secretly wanted to stop by and have a little talk with Mae. After all, Mae was as likely a suspect in the murders as Jack. Mae had been having affairs with both the victims, if the gossip could be believed.
What if Mae had been having a third affair? Sally wondered. That would instantly create another suspect, someone jealous enough to eliminate the competition.
Sally pulled into Mae's driveway and parked her car beside a huge black Lincoln Navigator with an HCC parking sticker on the back window. The yard was perfect. The grass along the driveway was so
evenly trimmed that it might have been cut with a pair of kitchen scissors. Oak trees, as perfectly trimmed in their own way as the edge of the lawn, shaded the yard, and not one blade of grass on the entire lawn dared to stick up higher than any other. There were gardenia bushes planted in front of the porch, and there was a flower bed where periwinkles and bluish-gray decorative cabbages grew. There was no grass growing in the beds, not so much as one stray sprig.
Sally got out of her car. There were no oil stains on the driveway and no dark mildew spots anywhere. Sally was almost embarrassed to walk on it with the same shoes she'd worn in the school's auto shop for fear of getting a spot on the virtually pristine concrete.
She walked on it anyway and went up to the front door, which might have been freshly painted only a week ago. The brass doorknob glistened like gold. The sound of the doorbell was a disappointment, however. It rang with only two tones, the traditional
bing-bong.
Sally was hoping for something more exotic.
Mae came to the door and opened it. Sally was shocked at her appearance. At school, Mae was never less than perfect, and as far as Sally knew not a hair on Mae's head had ever been out of place.
That wasn't the case now. Mae's short blond hair was mussed, and there were dark circles under her eyes, which were red from crying. Her nose was red, too, and if she had been wearing makeup earlier, it was mostly gone now. She clutched a crumpled tissue in one hand.
“Sally?” she said. “How nice of you to come by. Please come in.”
The words sounded like something being recited by a robot, but Mae, no matter what her feelings were, could never be less than polite. She stepped back from the door, holding it open for Sally.
The inside of the house was immaculate, as Sally had known it would be. The tile in the entrance hall was sparkling. The carpet in the den might never have been walked on except with bare feet. There were fresh pink-and-white miniature mums in a vase on the coffee table.
The only surprise was that Vera Vaughn was sitting on the couch. Sally hadn't expected anyone else to be there, especially not Vera, who was undoubtedly the owner of the Navigator in the driveway.
It was just the kind of vehicle Vera would drive—black, macho, and bigger than anything else on the road. The “mine is bigger than yours” syndrome, which Vera liked to prove wasn't the prerogative of men only.
Vera often dressed in full dominatrix mode: leather skirt, boots, and shirt. Today, however, possibly out of deference to Mae's grief, she was wearing jeans, white leather walking shoes, and a white cotton shirt. Probably Sally shouldn't have been surprised to see her there because Vera and Mae had shared an office in the beginning of their careers at HCC and had remained friends ever since.
“Please,” Mae said to Sally. “Have a seat.”
Sally said hello to Vera and sat in a comfortable upholstered chair that didn't seem ever to have been impressed by another human body. Mae sat on the couch beside Vera, leaning slightly forward, her clasped hands clutching the tissue and resting on her legs.
“I wanted to say how sorry I am about Ralph Bostic,” Sally told her. “And Ray Thomas. I know they were … good friends of yours.”
Mae sniffled and dabbed at her nose with the tissue.
“Thank you,” she said. “It was good of you to come by. But how did you know I cared about them?”
Sally couldn't very well say that she knew because she'd been asking. So she said, “It's just something I'd heard around the college.”
“I suppose it wasn't much of a secret,” Mae said. “They were both wonderful men.”
Everything that Sally had heard about Ralph Bostic argued that Mae was completely wrong about him. And Thomas hadn't exactly been a paragon of virtue, either, not according to Jorge. Vera clearly didn't agree with the statement, either, if her loud sniff of disapproval was any indication. But then Vera didn't approve of men in general. As far as she was concerned, Bostic and Thomas were typical examples of a generally bad lot.
“I know lots of people wouldn't see it that way,” Mae went on. “I know Ralph and Ray didn't seem like anything special, but they were very interesting in their own ways.”
Sally was dying to ask what those ways might be, but she didn't think it was any of her business. Mae, however, didn't seem to mind talking about it.
“They were tremendously sexy,” she said. “I think men who work with their hands at some menial task are very hot, don't you?”
“Uh,” Sally said. She'd never heard Mae talk like that before. Her visit was suddenly turning into an episode of
Ricki Lake.
“Men are worthless manipulators, most of them,” Vera said. “They use women for their own needs, and that's all there is to it. Bostic and Thomas were no better than the rest, and maybe a little bit worse.”
“Well,” Mae said, “it's not as if a woman doesn't have needs, too. There's only so much housecleaning a person can do.”
“Hm,” Sally said, thinking that if her house were as clean as Mae's, there wouldn't be any time at all left over for fooling around with one man, much less two of them.
“They were always a little grimy, too,” Mae said. “I like that in a man. Don't you?”
“Ah,” Sally said, wondering how Mae kept the place so clean if she was going out with two such grimy guys. She decided she really didn't want to see the bedroom.
“Actually, I don't much like grimy men at all,” Vera said. “The world would be a better place without them.”
Sally thought Vera had a real way with words. Mae was probably really glad she'd come by. What a comfort.
“Without men,” Vera continued, “world peace wouldn't be just a dream. It would be a reality.”
Sally wasn't so sure of that. There would still be women like Ellen Baldree around.
“I just can't believe they're gone,” Mae said. “Both of them, just like that. It's almost too much.”
She lifted up the crumpled tissue and started to sob into it. Vera didn't seem inclined to do anything, so Sally moved over onto the couch and put her arm around Mae.
“I'm sorry,” Mae said after a few seconds. She took a deep breath and gathered herself. “I'm all right now.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes. I really shouldn't let things affect me that way, but I'm quite a sentimental person in some ways.”
“Sentiment is highly overrated,” Vera said. “You need to get in touch with yourself and stop leaning on men. You have your own identity.”
“It's not like I was still going with either Ralph or Ray,” Mae said. “I actually hadn't seen either of them in a week or so.”
“Good,” Vera said.
Sally thought about asking why the breakups had occurred, but she didn't think she'd have to. The way Mae was going on, all Sally had to do was wait and Mae would fill her in.
Mae didn't disappoint her.
“I started seeing someone else,” she said.
“Oh,” Sally said.
“Yes. It's been a big help to know that I can count on him in times like this.”
“You don't need him,” Vera said. “You don't need any man. Be strong. Be a woman.”
Sally had a frightening vision of Vera morphing into Helen Reddy and singing a verse or two of “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” or however the song went. She could almost hear the opening bars, and she shook her head slightly to clear it.
“Besides,” Vera said, looking ostentatiously around the room, “I don't see any males around here offering support. If you have a new guy who's so sensitive to your needs, where is he?”
“I'm sure he'll be coming by later,” Mae said. “He has some other things to take care of first. He has quite a few responsibilities at the college.”
Fieldstone,
Sally thought.
Good lord!
“There are so many things to do at the prisons, you know,” Mae said.
Jorge,
Sally thought.
That son of
a
bitch!
BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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