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Authors: John Dunning

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Booked to Die (21 page)

BOOK: Booked to Die
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Hennessey had arrived with his new partner before dawn. Teaming Neal with Lester Cameron had been the final ironic fallout of the Jackie Newton affair, but Boone Steed worked in mysterious ways. Cameron and I had never liked each other: he was too trigger-happy and hot-collared for my taste, though I’d heard it said more than once that Cameron in action reminded people of me. I didn’t like that much, though I did respect Cameron in a professional way. I thought he was a good cop, I just didn’t like him as a man. He had a head on his shoulders and a block of ice where his heart was supposed to be. He had a take-charge demeanor that was a turnoff, but his record with DPI) was a good one. He and I had been in the same class at the police academy, long ago. We had never been bosom buddies, even then. For most of an hour, Hennessey, Cameron, and I sat in the front room talking. We were three old pros: I knew what they needed and gave them what I could. Cameron sat on one of my stools like a grand high inquisitor and fired off the inevitable questions, and I answered them like clockwork. I knew the questions before they were asked. I told him about Miss Pride, where she’d come from, when and why. I told him about Peter, and his friendship with Bobby Westfall, who had also been murdered. Hennessey stood apart as I related this. He looked out into the dark street, and even when he looked at me, he avoided my eyes. I guess he knew what I was thinking, that you can’t ever drag your feet on a murder case, can’t ever assume that the victim isn’t important enough to warrant the balls-out effort. You never know when a killer might come back for an encore.

We talked about Miss Pride. She had no enemies on this earth, I said, unless she had a dark side that I simply couldn’t imagine. I told them what I thought: that it tied into Westfall, and Miss Pride was the innocent victim. I told them how skittish Peter had been the last two days, how frantic he’d been when he tried to reach me at Rita McKinley’s. I told them about Rita, too, all the facts, all the rumors. As an afterthought, I told them that Jackie Newton had been hanging around.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This doesn’t smell like Jackie.”

“You sure thought it was before,” Hennessey said, looking out the window.

“That was then, this is now.”

“What’s so different?” Cameron said. “You boys kiss and make up?”

“It doesn’t fit Jackie. The first one did: go look up the M.O. yourself if you want to see what I’m talking about. There’s a random nature to all of Jackie’s old business. This wasn’t random. Jackie doesn’t come advertising before he kills somebody. That’s my opinion.”

“Opinions are like assholes,” Cameron said. “Everybody’s got one.”

“That’s cute, Lester,” I said. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

By then it was daylight: it was seven-thirty and word of the tragedy had spread up and down the block. People were gathering on the walk and peering in the windows.

“What’s the name of the guy who was dating her?” Cameron said.

“You mean Jerry Harkness?”

“If that’s the guy who was dating her, that’s who I mean.”

“I wouldn’t say he was dating her. He took her to dinner a couple of nights ago.”

“We need to see him. And we need to go up in the hills and see this McKinley woman. See if she’s still got that tape, for one thing. Maybe the lab can separate those voices and we can hear what they were saying when they were talking over each other. That should be the first priority. How do I get there?”

“You don’t unless you call first. That’s the way the lady operates.”

“Well, here’s the way I operate. You give me her address and let me worry about getting in.”

“You could save yourself some grief if you call her. I don’t think she did this, do you?”

“I don’t know who the hell did it.”

“Lester, she was with me at the time.”

“Wrong, sport. She was with you when she played you a tape that she said had just been made. Besides, you don’t have to pull the trigger to be involved in something.”

I nodded slowly. “It’s a calculated risk. If she’s still got the tape, a phone call might make sure she keeps it.”

“Or burns it.”

“Or uses it over,” Hennessey said. “That’s the most likely thing. She’ll slip it back in the machine and just use it again. Shucks, even by calling her, we might be erasing it.”

“Oh, hell,” I said, remembering. “I think I may’ve already done that.”

“What’d you do?” Cameron said meanly.

“I got back here about midnight. She called me almost as soon as I came in the door. We talked for a few minutes, then I called her back. God damn it, she had the recording on. I talked on it for a long time.”

“How long?”

“Long enough.”

“What’d you talk about?”

“Just stupid bullshit. Dumb, stupid stuff.”

“Love talk?” Cameron asked.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t think that question requires a translation. Are you involved with this woman, Janeway?”

“Yeah,” I said after a moment. “I believe I am.”

“Shit,” Cameron said.

“Next time I decide to have an affair with a woman, Lester, I’ll be sure and come ask your permission first.”

“We’ve got to go get that tape now,” Hennessey said, “before she uses it anymore.”

“You can’t get in there without a warrant,” I said.

“You still can’t stop playing cop, can you, Janeway?” Cameron said. “I think maybe it’s time you remembered who the police are.”

“I’m trying to tell you something that might do you some good if you’ll just shut up and listen. You don’t just walk up to this lady’s house and knock on the door. She’s got a ten-foot fence and a gate that locks. If you go over that fence without a warrant, anything that comes from that tape is out the window, even if the killer confesses in verse and leaves you his telephone number.”

“That’s only true if she’s involved,” Hennessey. “We couldn’t make a case against her with the tape, but we sure as hell could if the killer’s somebody else.”

“Why not cover your ass?” I said.

“You’ve always been good at that, haven’t you, Janeway?” Cameron said. “Except once.”

31

They carried the
bodies out in rubber bags strapped to stretchers. The crowd gave a soft collective sigh and moved back from the door. It all seemed to take forever, as if people were trapped in some slow-motion twilight zone. The lab men combed the place, and this is not a hurry-up process. I waited them out. I sat by the door and tried not to think, and when I could see that it was winding down I started working on a new sign for the window. I wrote it on chipboard with a heavy black marking pen. It said, closed until further notice.

I began to see familiar faces in the crowd. Clyde Fix. A couple of bookscouts I knew. I saw Ruby standing alone, and Neff a few feet away, also alone. I’d seen it before, how death both repels and attracts, leaving even best friends alone with their darkest fascinations, fears. Jerry Harkness peeked in and asked what had happened. When I told him, he looked sick. He drifted down the street without another word.

Any violent death is bad, but this one was worse than bad. I felt like I’d just been mauled by a tiger.

Then, suddenly, they were all gone. The lab boys rolled up their tents and packed away their gear and the crowd outside began to dissolve. Fifteen minutes later the place was empty. A wave of loneliness washed over me, deep and cutting, almost unbearable. How little we know about people, I thought. Can you ever really know anyone? Already I saw Pinky Pride as a one-dimensional figure. I liked her but I knew in years to come I’d have trouble remembering her face. How little time I had actually spent with her. Never mind, Pinky, I’ll spend the time now. I’ll spend it now.

I went from room to room turning off the lights. The bathroom was the worst. The blood was still there and the room was puffed with fingerprint dust and there was still the smell of death, but fading now. I’m not much of a crier: I hate to admit that these days, when
macho
is a dirty word and people use it to trap and unmask insensitive bastards like myself, but I did shed a few quiet, private tears for Pinky Pride. Then I dropped my new sign into the front window, locked the front door, and started on the trail of her killer.

32

“I can’t believe
this,” Ruby said. “God damn, that poor kid. That poor sweet kid.”

Neff looked truly shaken. He sat in his usual spot behind the counter, but his usually busy hands were idle.

“What were you boys doing last night?” I asked.

“We were right here, Dr. J. You called me here, you know where we were.”

“Did you see anything, hear anything, or see anybody unusual?”

I was looking at Neff, who had gone pale. His hands had begun to tremble. “I…I think I…may’ve seen him,” he said.

“We been sittin‘ here waiting for the cops to come down, but they never did,” Ruby said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

“They had to chase down something urgent, but they’ll be back,” I said. “What did you see, Neff?”

But Neff couldn’t speak. He put his hand over his face and sat there shivering.

“Give ‘im a minute,” Ruby said. “This’s been one helluva shock.”

“For all of us, Ruby,” I said. “What were you doing between five and six?”

“Lookin‘ at books.”

“What books?”

“We’d just gotten in some wonderful stuff. I was humped over here at the door, lookin‘ at the books. I didn’t see a thing.”

“That’s what you were doing when I called?”

“Yeah. Em was here with me, sittin‘ right where he is now. He didn’t feel good…”

“I’ve had a touch of stomach flu,” Neff said. “Had the runs all day long. I thought maybe if I got out a while, if I went on a buy, I’d stop thinking about how lousy I felt. I shoulda gone home and went to bed. But I went out and bought these books instead. I’d just gotten back. I had to hit the can so bad I thought I’d bust. You know how we’re set up back there, real cramped, with the toilet right on the alley. I sat down and did my duty, then opened the back door to air the place out. There was a guy… coming up from your way… Christ, I looked right in his face.”

“What’d he look like?”

“Like a man 1 wouldn’t want to run into, in a dark alley at night.”

“Give me some color, Neff. Give me a size, a shape. How old was this dude?”

“I don’t know. Forty… maybe older. I wasn’t paying that much attention then. I know he was white, and big.”

“How big? Two hundred? Six feet? You tell me, Neff, I’m a lousy mind reader.”

“Yeah… big. Two hundred… at least that. Six feet… I don’t know. But heavy through here. God, he saw me watching him.”

“What did he do when he saw you watching him?”

“Turned his head away… like this… then went on by.”

“Did that strike you as suspicious?”

“Why should it? I didn’t know anybody’d been killed. I’m used to seeing weird characters around here; why should I think anything about it. Jesus, the guy looked straight at me. What am I gonna do?”

“Tell the cops what happened, just like you’re telling me.”

“Well, where the hell are they? And what if that guy comes back before they do?”

“I’m not telling you not to worry about it: somebody’s killed three book people in this town and maybe we all better worry a little. If I were you I’d leave the store closed today. Stay together. Go downtown and wait for Hennessey, then tell him what you told me. Could you describe this guy for a police artist?”

“Maybe… I’m not sure. I didn’t stare at him. When he looked away, so did I.”

“How was he dressed?”

“Black. Black slacks, black sport coat open at the neck, pale gray shirt…no tie. Jesus, he might’ve had the gun right there under his coat. He could’ve shot me.”

“Or he could’ve been some neighborhood bum who had nothing to do with it. I take it you’ve never seen him around here.”

“Never seen him anywhere. He didn’t look like a bum to me.”

“Did you watch him at all after he went on by?”

“No. I came… right back up front.”

I let out a long breath. “Okay, let me get a feel for the time frame. You say you went out on a buy and got back here when… about quarter to five?”

“It wasn’t much later than that. I didn’t look at the clock, but I’m sure I was here by five.”

“It was right at closing time, Dr. J,” Ruby said. “I remember I was thinking I’d be closing up in a minute, then Em came back.”

“Then it was closer to five than quarter to,” I said.

“I don’t know,” Neff said. “I thought it was earlier than that, but you may be right.”

“It was a few minutes before five,” Ruby said.

“What’d you drive?” I asked.

“My car, same’s I always drive. Same one’s out back.”

“And you came up Colfax, right past all the stores?”

“Yeah.”

“When you passed my place, did you happen to look in?”

“I gave it a glance, I always do. I like to see if there’s any business on the block. I look in all the stores when I come by.”

“Was the store open or closed?”

“I don’t remember, I didn’t look at the sign. There was nobody in the front, though, I do know that.”

“Did you look in at Harkness and Fix?”

“Yeah, sure. Fix was sitting in that chair by his window like he always does. Harkness was gone somewhere—he had that clock on the door that said, you know, be back at such-and-such a time. I didn’t notice what time it said. I need some water. This shit’s got me shook.”

I waited for him to come back. Then I started in again. “So you drove past the stores and pulled up here and unloaded the books. How long did that take?”

“No more’n a minute,” Ruby said. “There wasn’t all that much, quantity-wise. Just three boxes. Didn’t take but a second to bring it all in.”

I kept looking at Neff. “Then what did you do?”

“Like I told you, headed straight for the can. I thought I’d bust before I got back there.”

“How long were you on the pot?”

“No more than a minute. You know how it is when you’ve got the runs, it’s all water.”

“Then you opened the back door and saw the guy.”

He took a shivery breath, nodded, and let it out.

“So you were back there what… two minutes? And this would all have taken place by a few minutes after five? And you didn’t see the guy get in any car and drive away, either of you?”

“I didn’t see anything,” Ruby said.

Neff looked ill. We were all silent for a moment.

“I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Janeway, this thing’s made a mess of my nerves. I’m not gonna sleep till they catch this bastard.”

I gave him an encouraging little nod. “Tell me anything else that comes to you. Hair… scars…”

“I didn’t notice any scars. He had thick black hair with deep recesses. It went way back, made the front of his head look like a big letter M, but the hair was still real thick where it did grow. He had a face like a…turtle… just a flat line for a mouth. I can’t tell you about his eyes: he turned away before I got a look, and I probably wouldn’t remember anyway.”

“And he didn’t say anything?”

“Hell no. The whole thing didn’t take more than a few seconds. But that was enough.”

“All right,” I said. “Stay away from here today. Get downtown and tell Hennessey what you’ve told me. Get the artist involved. Do the best you can.”

“Sure… you bet.”

“A couple more questions, then I’ve got to go,” I said. “I talked to Miss Pride in the middle of the day. Told her to call and tell you she’d be there alone at closing…” I looked searchingly at both faces.

Ruby shook his head. “She never called me.”

“No,” Neff said.

Damn you, Pinky, I thought. Next time do what I tell you.

I felt the shivers in my own spine, and hoped I wasn’t coming down with Neff’s flu.

“What about Peter?” I said. “I asked you before if you knew where he lived.”

“Didn’t know then, don’t know now,” Ruby said.

“What was Peter’s last name?”

“Uh, wait a minute… yeah, I know it, I just can’t call it. Hell, Em, help me out, you know what it is.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Come on, we’ve written enough hot checks to the old fart. I don’t mean that the way it sounds, Dr. J… don’t want to speak ill of the dead…I’m just… tryin‘ to…call the damn thing up for you and I can’t get a handle on it. Haven’t you ever written him a check?”

“I always paid him cash,” I said.

“Must be nice. It’s on the tip of my tongue, that’s how close it is. It’s Peter, uh… uh… God damn it! Peter, uh… I know the damn thing as well as I know my own.”

“Think about something else for a minute,” I said. I looked at three boxes of books stacked against the glass case. “Is this the stuff you bought yesterday?”

“Yeah. Damn lovely stuff it is, too. Go ahead, take a look.”

I peeked over the edge and saw a fine copy of Ellison’s
Invisible Man
. Under it was
A Clockwork Orange
, a beaut. Under that was a nice double stack, about fifteen books. The three boxes would hold forty, maybe fifty pieces.

“It was a hurry-up deal,” Ruby said. “Woman was going out of town, she calls us and needs the cash right now. I tell you, Samson, we had to scrounge to get it up. Fifteen hundred we had to pool, and two hours to do it. But we did it.”

I didn’t go through the box. For once I didn’t feel like looking at books.

I started to leave, stopped at the door and said:

“Hey, Rube! What’s Peter’s name?”

“Bonnema,” he said. “Two
n
‘s, and one
m
. Peter Bonnema. By God, Dr. J, that’s a good trick. That’s a damn good trick.”

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” I said, and left.

BOOK: Booked to Die
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