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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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“I’ll bet.” Claudia shaded her eyes with one hand. “Liz?”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “If he tries to drag me away, I’ll scream.”

She laughed and went back inside, and Drake accompanied me around the garage. “Out of sight here,” he observed, pushing ahead to shine a flashlight into the bus. “That was good thinking.”

"Thanks.” I scowled at him. My emotions had taken a beating that day, and I didn’t feel like subjecting them to yet another bout of excitement. If Drake thought he could hit on me again, he would find out his mistake.

He came closer, but didn’t try anything. I was disappointed—because I had wanted to turn him down.

“What’s the book?”

“I—what?”

“What’s the book?” He reached out to pluck it from under my arm.
“The White Goddess.
You read the damnedest things.”

“It’s very soporific.” I unlocked the side door and slid it open. “Instead of sleeping pills.”

“Chamomile tea.” He watched me step inside, made no move to follow me. “I have a cup of chamomile tea in the evening.”

The dome light had come on, and I could see his face, all but the eyes, hidden behind his glasses. “That’s nice,” I said. “Well, nighty-night, Detective Drake. I’m going to bed now.”

He opened his mouth, but I forestalled any comment by shutting the door. The dome light went out. I sat down, and he stood outside.

“When are you going to get this window fixed?” He tapped on the cardboard, and I felt even more insecure.

“When I get the money.” I sighed. “Tomorrow, I guess. If there’s time.”

“Well, at least lock the door!” He jiggled the handle for emphasis, and I locked it, the little click loud in the darkness. He stood there for a few seconds longer, and then went away.

After his car drove off, I drew the curtains and turned on my lamp. I refused to think about Drake, about Tony, about my window being made of cardboard, or any of the events of the past two days. Instead I pulled out my sleeping bag, opened the book, and read.

I got sixty pages into it, realized that I didn’t remember a thing I’d read, and turned off the light, to lie staring into the darkness, analyzing every sound in the night that surrounded my bus.

 

Chapter 14

 

It was colder the next morning, reminding me that every year, when the Indian summer warmth began to fade, I had the urge to migrate with the birds to some warmer clime. Once I actually did get as far south as Santa Barbara, but it was inconvenient setting up the post office box, getting new library cards, scoping out the facilities all over again. I’d never gone far from the San Francisco Bay after that.

I pulled on sweatpants over long underwear, and a bulky shaker-knit sweater from a garage sale over all the upper layers. There was a shower in the bathroom Claudia had allotted to me, and I intended to use it, although I’d had a long argument with myself over letting my independence be whittled away by degrees—first a convenient toilet, then a shower whenever I wanted one; where would it all stop?

The kitchen was empty when I came out of the bathroom, tucking damp hair behind my ears. I put the kettle on and went quietly up the stairs. Claudia called to me before I reached the top.

She was still in bed, propped up on the pillows. A lump under the covers showed where her ankle was propped up, too.

“Worse this morning?” I thought she looked a bit feverish, as if she’d slept badly.

“It still hurts. A lot,” she admitted. “Guess I should get an X ray.”

“That’s a good idea.” Her bedroom was full of old furniture and stacks of books and papers. The bedside table was covered with them. “Shall I clear these away and bring you a tray?”

“That would be nice.” She smiled at me with an effort. “Biddy was right after all. It’s lucky for me she sent you with that book. I can’t imagine trying to get around without help today.”

It was my private thought that she could have had help from any number of people, and in fact Bridget did show up at the kitchen door while I was fixing Claudia’s tray.

“Morning, Liz. Are you okay? How’s Claudia?” Bridget carried Moira tucked against her shoulder. She looked at the tray. “So her ankle’s worse, is it?”

“It pains her a bit.” I poured more water through the coffee filter. “You want a cup?”

“Are you making tea, too? I’ll have that.” She sat at the table, patting Moira’s tiny back. “Is she going to the doctor?”

“She says so, but I don’t believe she’s called yet.”

“Too early,” Bridget pointed out, blowing across the cup of tea I set before her. She sipped cautiously, so as not to dribble on the baby. “There’re only answering services before nine.”

The toast popped up, and I found some jam in the depths of one cupboard, dusty but with lid intact. “Do you think this is okay?”

Bridget held it to the light, then grinned. “It should be. I gave it to her last summer and the seal’s not broken. It’s nice of you to do all this, Liz.”

“It’s not nice at all,” I mumbled, dishing up the eggs, spooning jam into a little bowl. “I’m getting free room and board, and someone to call the police for me if the worst happens.”

“Oh, yes, the murder.” Bridget’s face grew thoughtful. “Do you think whoever it is will attack you next?”

I didn’t want to go into the Tony theory. “You know me,” I said instead, trying for a carefree smile. “Just the kind of woman everyone wants to attack.”

Bridget got to her feet. “Here.” She thrust Moira in my direction. “I’ll take the tray up to Claudia. Hold her for a minute.”

I held the baby, my hands nearly spanning her teeny chest, her head lolling sideways like a top-heavy flower. She opened her slits of eyes and goggled at me cross-eyed. We stood like that for a few minutes. I could sense the cry coming when she wrinkled her cheeks, so I brought her hastily to
my shoulder, trying to pat as I had seen Bridget pat her, trying for that soothing murmur that seems to come so naturally to
mothers.

The crying wasn’t loud, but it was piercing and unsettling—the ancient defense of the newborn. I carried Moira up the stairs. Bridget was sitting on the bed while Claudia ate, but she graciously accepted her baby back.

“I’m not too good with babies,” I said apologetically. The words were an understatement. I was terrified of babies, of their helplessness and mysterious ways, their complacent acceptance of total dependence.

“It’s okay,” Bridget said, cuddling Moira. The crying stopped. “She’s really pretty good most of the time.”

“She’s darling,” Claudia said absently. “Liz, Biddy says she’ll give me a ride to the clinic. That way I won’t have to impose on you.”

“It’s no imposition,” I protested, but Claudia was firm.

“We won’t get to the roses today,” she said, regretfully. “At least, not until this afternoon, if then. So you just go on about your own business, whatever that may be.”

“I need to shop for Vivien today—you know, Vivien Greely?”

“Oh, yes.” Bridget smiled. “I’ll be seeing her tomorrow. She always comes to the preschool every year with a couple of other seniors and helps us put on our Halloween party.”

“The Halloween party. Of course.” Last year, in a rash moment, I had promised to help at this same event. That was enough to create a tradition, and somehow I was slated to help again. Halloween parties at preschools call for a very high ratio of adults to children. I had gotten a few overnight baby-sitting jobs last year as a result of my volunteering; parents are always looking for responsible sitters who don’t charge an arm and a leg.

“But, Liz.” Claudia heaved herself up further on her pillows. “I thought you were going to keep your bus out of sight. How will you get to the grocery store?”

“It won’t matter for such a short trip.” I stacked the empty plates on the tray. “This is not that small a town, after all. I suppose I can go to
the Co-op and back without attracting attention.”

Claudia exchanged a look with Bridget, and I saw that they had appointed themselves the members of a select group, the Take Care of Liz Sullivan Group. “I have a car you can use,” Claudia mentioned. “It’s in the garage, and the battery’s probably dead, but if you can get it started, I’d appreciate your driving it. I never do, and that’s bad for a car, isn’t it?”

“Very bad,” Bridget said firmly. “Claudia would be in your debt if you got her car running again. Can you jump-start it?”

“Of course.” I looked from one of them to the other. “You’re very kind. I appreciate it.”

“Nonsense. We’re doing nothing,” Claudia protested, flushing. “Now, if you’ll both get out of here, I’ll get dressed and we can move ahead with this day.”

I had the kitchen cleaned up before Claudia needed help to come downstairs. She leaned on me and the railing, not saying much about her obviously painful foot. It was more swollen than the previous day, and I guessed it was either sprained or broken, meaning she’d have to spend some time with it elevated, instead of ignoring it as she had. I helped her into Biddy’s Suburban and they drove off.

It was good being alone. Claudia had left me her keys, and I pushed her car out of the garage so I could get at it with the jumper cables. It was a ten-year-old Honda, with several dents that seemed a testimony to Claudia’s absentminded driving, but it started right up with a little coaxing. I can keep my bus running pretty well, but I don’t know much about other cars, so it was a relief that it needed nothing else from me. I cleaned the dust and spider webs off its windshield and took it to one of those car washes where a fill-up buys you a session with the brushes.

Vivien always wanted the same things at the market— bread, low-fat milk, Raisin Bran, iceberg lettuce, cans of soup and tuna, a bag of apples, and a couple of packages of frozen mixed vegetables. She had a weakness for store-bought bakery goods, and I picked out a yellow cake with white frosting and some kind of red jam as filling. When I took in the groceries she would ask me to have a snack with her, and we would sit at her kitchen table, drinking tea, eating the cake, and discussing the writing life.

Her yard looked brown and weedy when I pulled up in front of the little bungalow just before ten. The house was shabby, too, and I wondered how to get it painted on Vivien’s limited income. I couldn’t do anything about it now, with Claudia’s work making extra demands on my time. But perhaps, in a month or so, when they’d caught Pigpen’s murderer and life went back to normal . . . I took the grocery bags out of the car and tried very hard to believe that someday life would go back to normal.

Vivien met me at the door, her cotton housedress neat and tidy. She enjoyed having company, and we both got a kick out of discussing our work in progress. I put the groceries away, as usual over her protest, and as usual she got the tea ready over my protest. Her refrigerator wasn’t as painfully bare as Claudia’s, but I knew that every little dish of leftovers, every carefully hoarded scrap of meat, would be eaten.

"Thank you so much, Liz.” She waved me to a seat at the table, which I took, knowing from experience that she wouldn’t let me help her, though I found it difficult to watch her hobble around the kitchen. “This cake looks lovely. I’ll just put some on a plate now. How’s your story going for
Smithsonian?”

I said I hadn’t gotten much written lately, and she accepted it serenely. “That sometimes happens. You just have to persevere. I’ve been going great guns with my autobiography.”

She sat down across from me and we talked about transitions and flashbacks for a while. It was peaceful, but I wanted to reestablish my routine, so after half an hour I got up to put away the cake and wash my cup.

“You don’t have to do that,” Vivien said, but I just smiled at her and put the rest of the cake on the covered dish where she liked to keep it. Her counter was very tidy, but cluttered also with boxes of tea bags, geranium cuttings rooting in glasses of water, a line of prescription bottles, and a couple of those samples of some kind of granola, like the ones Alonso had been collecting the day before.

She saw me looking at them and giggled. “I’m very lucky,” she said, picking one up. “Usually you just get one of these, but
I got two.”

“So you didn’t need your Raisin Bran just yet?” I picked up Claudia’s car keys.

“Oh, it won’t take me long to get through those,” Vivien said. “It’s just fun to get something for
nothing, isn’t it?”

I agreed, and let Vivien usher me to the door. “I’m having my house painted, too,” she mentioned, standing on the stoop. “Speaking of something for nothing. It’s one of those reverse mortgages, you know? I’ll get money every month on my house.”

“That’s wonderful.” We spent a few minutes talking about colors. “By the way, I could pick you up tomorrow before the kids’ big Halloween party.”

“Are you going again? How nice.” She turned her gentle smile on me. “We certainly had a good time last year. Of course, I always enjoy it so much. This will be my sixth time—or is it the seventh? At any rate, I would welcome a ride.”

Then she went back inside and I climbed into Claudia’s car, impatient for the library and the undemanding company of the microfiche reader.

 

Chapter 15

 

I got exactly fifteen minutes with the microfiche before Detective Paul Drake came and hauled me out of the library.

There’s some kind of heavy cultural conditioning to avoid making scenes in a library. When he materialized in front of me and jerked his head toward the door, I got up obediently. That automatic response angered me, but something in his expression had me worried, especially when he hissed that I should pack up my notes and bring all my stuff with me.

“Now what?”
I demanded, when we were standing on the sidewalk outside. “Has my library card expired or something?”

He didn’t reply—just looked at me. The liquidambar trees blazed orange and yellow around us; the air was a teasing combination of warmth from the sun and a cool autumn nip. Paul Drake didn’t appear to notice any of it.

“Goddamn it, Liz,” he said suddenly, the words practically exploding out of his mouth. “I’ve had a man watching Claudia Kaplan’s driveway since last night, and he swore your bus was still there. What kind of game are you playing now?”

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
3.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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