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Authors: Jan Burke


BOOK: Convicted
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he's so

This is what I heard as I walked into the small apartment I shared with Lydia Pastorini.

I suspected it was said about me. The words were spoken by Cokie Delini, whom I considered to be one of the weirdest people I had ever met; I found it a little unsettling to have the evaluation thrown back at me.

Sitting with Lydia at the table that took up about half the living room, Cokie noticed my entrance and blushed furiously.

“Oh—oh—hi, Irene!” she said, a little too brightly.

I frowned. She had been named Coco by her mother, after Mlle. Chanel, although if this was some maternal gesture of hope that her daughter would be into high fashion, that ship went down with all hands a long time ago. And maybe if her mother had studied up on Coco Chanel, I would have been looking at someone named Jane.

“Hi, Cokie,” I said, and glanced at Lydia, who has known me long enough to have damned near telepathic abilities to communicate with me.

“Cokie was just telling me about a strange thing that happened a couple of days ago,” Lydia said. I could see the amusement in her eyes.


“You're just the person to help her out,” Lydia added, now clearly suppressing laughter. “Cokie, tell Irene about it. She's good with puzzles and mysteries.”

Cokie eyed me uncertainly. “Really?”

“I don't know—” I said warily.

“She is,” Lydia said. “She reads a lot of mysteries.”

To Cokie, this probably sounded as if I had received a compliment, but I knew that Lydia was teasing me. I had missed a morning class because I had gone to bed the previous night with my first book of Sherlock Holmes stories. Jack Corrigan, one of our journalism profs, had recommended them. I picked up the book expecting the stories would give me a lovely brain break from the deadly political science text I'd been trying to absorb. I planned to read one of the stories and then go back to poli sci with renewed energy. Instead, I stayed up reading about Holmes and Watson until I fell asleep around the time birds started singing. Then overslept.

“You probably don't want to help me,” Cokie said, making me wonder how it is that otherwise unperceptive people have an unerring ability to say the one thing that will make you respond to them out of guilt.

“Tell me about it,” I said, setting my armload of books down on the table and my backpack on the floor next to me. I sat and tried to stretch the kinks out of my shoulders. This semester seemed destined to turn me into an orthopedic case.

Lydia, always a perfect hostess, had already brought out a big pitcher of iced tea and a plate of her homemade chocolate chip cookies, and she went into the kitchen to get a glass for me. She also reloaded the plate. I had been thinking about those cookies all day. The scent of them baking was what finally woke me up, but at that point I had been too rushed to eat any.

Cokie passed on second helpings, but wisely waited until I was fortified with chocolate and sugar before beginning her tale.

“It happened two days ago—”


“Yes, Wednesday, at about ten o'clock. I just happened to be looking out our back window.”

Lydia made a choking sound.

Cokie had gone to high school with us, and we knew other kids who grew up on her street. They had long ago told us that Cokie's love of spying and gossiping had earned her a nickname among her neighbors: “the Anchorwoman.”

“Are you all right, Lydia?” I asked sweetly. She waved me off.

“Go on,” I said to Cokie.

“My room is on the second floor of our house. My bedroom window looks out onto our backyard and the alley behind our fence. I heard a truck coming down the alley, and looked out to see a moving van pull up behind Mrs. Mikelson's house. She lives in the house on the other side of the alley. I happen to know that Mrs. Mikelson is on vacation in Hawaii with her son. So I wondered what was going on. The truck blocked my view of her house and part of the house next to it. And then . . . and then . . .”

Her cheeks turned bright red and she looked down at the table. I glanced at Lydia, whose eyes were brimming with laughter. I waited.

Cokie took a deep breath, then blurted, “And then the clowns jumped out.”


“You know, like Bozo. A lot of men dressed up like clowns in red wigs and crazy clothes and makeup.”

I will admit this was not where I expected her story to go.

Lydia started laughing.

“It's not funny!” Cokie said, then added morosely, “Well, I suppose it is.”

If I hadn't recently lost sleep over a book of detective stories, I would have laughed, too. The second story in
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
was “The Red-Headed League.”

Coincidence, I told myself sternly. Still, Cokie obviously wanted to be taken seriously. Mr. Sherlock Holmes had laughed at Jabez Wilson, but he also took his story seriously. He listened and observed and asked questions.

He would have made a good investigative reporter if he hadn't left all the writing up to Watson.

“Okay,” I said to Cokie, as if multiple-clowns-in-the-alley events happened every day. “How many?”

“Clowns?” she said, still wary. “Five that I could see.”

I reached into my backpack and pulled out a pen and a reporter's notebook. I turned to a fresh page and began writing down the details.

“You said they wore makeup—full makeup?”


“Same makeup pattern on all the clowns, or different?”


“Happy and sad face?”


I glanced up and saw Lydia staring at me. I could see that she was wondering if I was being especially mean. I turned toward Cokie, who was giving me much the same look. Well, to hell with them. They'd figure it out.

“And the wigs—same or different?”

“Different. Costumes, too, although they were all dressed like bums, not in ruffs and all of that.”

“Young? Old? Middle-aged?”

“They seemed young. One was a little fatter than the others, but most of them were slim. They were all active, running around, dancing.”

I asked her to describe them individually as best she could. One was carrying an inflatable toy that looked like a baseball bat, and bopped the others with it. One carried a huge purse with big flowers on it. When I asked about footwear, she frowned.

“All of them wore normal shoes—not clown shoes. White running shoes.”

She was good at describing things, and by the time she finished talking about clown number five, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what she had seen—but really, “five clowns” summed it up. What other questions could I ask?

“They were all wearing makeup and wigs, but you're certain they were all male?”

She hesitated, stared off into space for a moment, then said, “I can't be certain, but they sang like men.”


Lydia started laughing again.

I struggled to keep a straight face. Damn Lydia and her infectious laugh.

“Singing clowns,” I managed.

“Yes. They sang ‘Oklahoma!' ”

Okay, I lost it, and even Cokie laughed a little.

When we settled down, I asked, “The whole musical?”

“No, just that song.”

“Anyone else see this or hear this?”

“The first neighbor I asked about singing clowns in the alley looked at me as if I should be sent off to the banana ranch, so I stopped asking around. Besides, most of the neighbors are at work during the day. The few that aren't at work or school are old. Most of them are hard-of-hearing.”

“Your folks were at work?”


“And you had been home all day?”

Her chin raised a notch. “Yes.”

I had asked a stupid question.

In our final year at Las Piernas High School, beneath our senior yearbook photos, our ambitions were listed, and if we were accepted into a college, that was named, too. The space beneath Cokie's photo was blank.

I knew lots of other kids who weren't planning to go to college. Some didn't have the money, others didn't have the grades, still others had plans that didn't include college. Some planned to work in family businesses. The Vietnam War was on, so some planned to enlist, others to resist, still others would go even if they did so reluctantly. Cokie didn't fit into any of these categories.

Which was sort of typical of her. She didn't have a lot of friends, but she wasn't picked on. I suppose we both lucked out by hitting high school at a time when it was relatively easy to be odd. God bless Las Piernas High School's version of the tail end of the hippie days. We were chock-full of peace, love, and understanding.

When I'd asked her about her plans at the time, she told me she hadn't made up her mind yet and was going to take a breather. On the day she told me about the clowns, she was well into her second year of breathing.

Although she'd had good grades in high school, she hadn't applied to any colleges. Hadn't looked for a job. Had no plans to travel or to serve in the military. No plans to live on a commune or smoke dope all day in the Haight. Not part of the Jesus movement. Not practicing with a band in her garage, or working out a way to get a seat on the tour bus of the Doors.

Her parents were in good health, she didn't stay home to care for anyone who was incapacitated, and she had no siblings.

No known ambitions. No direction. A comfortable existence.

I shared a cheap apartment with Lydia and occasionally a third roommate, worked two part-time jobs, carried a full load of classes, and only avoided living on Top Ramen and tomato soup because Lydia was one hell of a cook.

Yet I never felt a moment's envy for Cokie.

“So at ten o'clock on Wednesday, five clowns—probably males—jumped out of a moving van parked in the alley behind your house and started singing ‘Oklahoma!'—do I have it right so far?”


“Did they seem to be looking up at you, singing it to you?”

She hesitated, then said, “I'm not sure. They glanced in my direction every now and then, but they didn't stand still and serenade me. They moved around, danced, and did high kicks and cartwheels.”

“Then what happened?”



“They climbed back into the van and drove off.”

“Were they all in the cab, or were some riding in the back?”

“Two in the back.”

BOOK: Convicted
5.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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