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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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Claudia echoed my thoughts. “A person might think they were just putting people like Pigpen Murphy and Alonso out of their misery,” she remarked, scribbling busily. “Kind of tidying up Nature’s mistakes.”

“Unless they cooperated in the process, it’s still murder,” I pointed out. “I don’t want anyone standing in judgment of my life and deciding whether or not I deserve it.”

“Naturally,” Claudia said, faintly scandalized. “I wasn’t suggesting that such a course of action would be allowable. I was just trying to put myself in the murderer’s shoes.”

The murderer’s shoes. Tony’s boots made an appearance in my mental movie. He had gotten a construction job, even though he was too good for that kind of manual labor, and steel-toed boots were required. The job had lasted a couple of weeks, until he’d picked a fight with the supervisor. The boots lasted much longer. He would sit in the kitchen to clean them, rubbing the saddle soap into their creases. He even named them. “The shit-kickers,” he called them, lacing them up before he went drinking with his buddies. I knew he found them useful in brawls—those steel toes could really inflict pain. One morning after he’d come back from drinking and shown me how much pain, I had crawled off the living room sofa, and, moving carefully so as not to aggravate my newly bruised ribs, mixed up a gallon of Fix-All and poured it into his boots. That was the first time I left him.

Now I had to shut my eyes to stop the memory. Did he know where I was? Was it his hand I detected in these deaths—a gradual progression that would lead him to me? “I’m putting you in danger,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “First Vivien, then you, then me. I should leave.”

“You weren’t living with Vivien,” Claudia pointed out. “No offense, Liz, but I believe you’re taking too egocentric a view of the events here. Perhaps they have nothing to do with you."

“They have me nearly arrested.” I put down my pen and felt gently around the back of my head. There was still a big knot there, the source of the headache that throbbed like a monotonous conga drum inside my skull. “Someone wants me out of the way—either in prison or dead. We both know that.”

Claudia leaned back with every appearance of enjoyment. “Now that’s where I think you’re wrong. I don’t think this murderer wants you dead at all. This is a pretty efficient killer, by all the evidence. If you were supposed to die, I think it would already have been arranged.” She took a big bite of doughnut. “My take on it is that you’re more valuable as a scapegoat than a victim. As long as you can’t put your finger on the common thread, you’re not a threat to the murderer. But if he can arrange to pin it on you—”

“An interesting theory.” Paul Drake spoke from the kitchen door. We both turned and gaped at him. I hadn’t heard a sound—he must have walked on the grass of the driveway to avoid the crunching gravel.

“You’re certainly sneaky, Detective Drake.” Claudia regarded him with disapproval. “And you’re early.”

He blinked. Some of the sternness went out of his face. “You were expecting me?”

“I figured you’d be around to pick Liz’s brain, since you didn’t get a chance at the station.” Claudia gestured magnificently toward the box of doughnuts. “Why else would I have gotten a dozen of these dangerous objects?”

Drake looked hungrily at then box. “You should have your doors locked,” he said, coming into the kitchen and demonstrating his point by locking the door behind him. He marched into the hall, and we could hear him checking the front door. “Even if there wasn’t someone out there knocking off Liz’s friends.” His voice floated down the hall to us, and then he came back in. “You should still keep your door locked.” He sat down at the table and pulled the box toward him. “Is there any coffee?”

I exchanged a look with Claudia and got a cup for Drake out of the dish drainer, pushing the carafe of coffee toward him. He sniffed it dubiously. “Who made this?”

“I did.” I poured him a cup. “Do you dare to drink it?”

“As long as it isn’t Mrs. Kaplan’s instant,” he answered cheerfully. Claudia tried not to smile.

“Have I ever told you, Detective, how much I deplore your manners?”

“Actually, I think you have.” He deliberated over the box, finally choosing a cinnamon twist. When he bit into it, his eyes closed. Even his granny glasses looked blissful. “Heavenly,” he breathed. “Is there any milk?”

This time I just pointed to the refrigerator. He waited on himself, and when he came back to the table he took a minute to look at Claudia’s notes. “Very neat,” he said approvingly. “Nice chart. Just like a mystery.”

Suspecting sarcasm, Claudia scowled at him. “Organization is the key to any scholarly undertaking,” she sniffed. “Perhaps you’d already have this killer behind bars if you tried it, Detective Drake.”

“I have my own methods,” he said, putting the doughnut down. “One of them is to interview those who might have important information. If you don’t want to go back to the station, Ms. Sullivan, you’re going to have to answer my questions fully and completely, with no interference.” He darted a look at Claudia, who raised her eyebrows innocently. “I prefer that spectators leave the room.”

“It’s my kitchen.” Claudia settled herself deeper into her chair and crossed her arms over her massive bosom. "And I intend to keep you from badgering my friend.”

Drake sighed impatiently. “This is not a game, Mrs. Kaplan. Your friend is in big trouble. I’m trying to help, which means I’m looking to uncover the truth. I do Liz the courtesy of believing that the truth will in her case make her free, and not a future resident of one of our overcrowded correctional institutes. So butt out or shut up; I don’t much care which.”

To my surprise, Claudia did not rip Drake’s head off— verbally, of course; she would never attempt physical violence. She simply picked up her pen, turned to a fresh page in her notebook, and waited silently.

Drake took me through everything Pigpen had said, everything I had said. At least, what I thought I’d said. As in any event under constant scrutiny, the reality had been replaced by the official version. I couldn’t really tell any more if those were his exact words, my exact words. What I remembered with clarity about that evening was the quality of the light, pouring through the trees to gild the steep sides of the creek, highlighting the fall brilliance of the poison oak that clothed it. I remembered the smell of the pine trees and the way my pear had tasted. And that Mrs. Gaskell wrote of the graveyard that reared its stones under Charlotte Brontë’s bedroom window. And how Pigpen’s unwashed body smell fought with the mothball scent of his Goodwill ensemble.

Drake wanted all that, too. He was the best listener I’d ever had. Certainly better than the lawyer appointed by the court to defend me from attempted murder charges against my ex-husband. Drake listened as if every action recounted, every thought rethought, would go directly into his bank account and be turned into gold.

It was the same with my encounter with Alonso. What he’d said to me, and I to him, was incidental. How he looked, the way he clutched the paper bag to his chest as if I’d challenge him for the cereal samples he’d been stealing, the macabre way his new outfit mirrored Pigpen’s, even down to the mothball smell, were all displayed for Drake’s benefit and Claudia’s notes.

“You mentioned the mothballs before.” Drake had a notepad, too, a very small one on which he made undecipherable marks with a mechanical pencil. He thumbed back through the little pages, dislodging a few, until he found one he wanted. “We contacted Goodwill," he said, blinking at me from behind his glasses. "They don’t use mothballs.”

“I smelled them,” I insisted stubbornly. “And they were both wearing relatively clean pants and newish-looking shoes. Pigpen had enormous feet.”

Drake didn’t really seem to need his notes. “You said Pigpen wore a flight jacket over the kind of vest that comes in a three-piece suit.”

“No.” I shook my head. “He wore a flight jacket. It was zipped. I didn’t see what was underneath, and I didn’t want to find out.”

Drake made another notation and seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Well, here’s an interesting fact for you. The vest Pigpen wore matched the suit jacket Alonso had on when he died. Both of them had all labels removed. And you were right. Both smelled a little of mothballs.”

I thought that over, but Claudia got there first. “So the same source provided their new clothes. So they must have been working together.”

“What kind of work was that?” It didn’t make sense. “No one would bother to dress up to steal those cereal samples. Alonso was certainly doing it on a grand scale, but that kind of stuff is fair game, especially if it’s just crammed into the newspaper bin underneath apartment mailboxes."

“What would you think Pigpen and Alonso would do if they were given a temporary job, some money?”

I hesitated. “If I were looking to bootstrap some homeless people, I wouldn’t have picked either of those two,” I finally said. “There are some that are on the street because they don’t have any choices, and there are some that have chosen the street.”

“And Pigpen was the latter?”

“Well, he wasn’t reliable.” I didn’t like having to dish about the street. There are remarkably decent people who have taken blow after blow from life until all they have left is a car or a shopping cart or just a blanket. They have stopped trying to elude their fate; they accept it at the same time that they turn away from it to drugs or liquor or whatever cheap escape their meager resources offer. Alonso had seemed to me to be coming from that perspective, handicapped by his rather trusting dimness. Pigpen, however, had been a natural-born bum, someone to whom work wasn’t worthwhile unless it was money for nothing. “If he’d ever gotten a job, I’d expect him to just take the first paycheck and drink it up and never show up again.”

“Sounds like he was blackmailing someone, not working,” Claudia observed. “All that about going to the bank—he had something on someone, and whoever it was killed him.”

“Like maybe knowledge of someone’s criminal record?” I forced the words out through my tight throat. “Maybe he told Alonso and that’s why I had to off him, too.”

“We thought about that.” Drake leaned back in his chair and took another bite of doughnut, chewing thoughtfully, as if our discussion was simply academic. “But there didn’t seem to be any reason why you’d kill to conceal your record. And what would be the point of blackmailing you? You don’t have any money.”

“I have more than most of them,” I muttered. For the past few years I had told myself I was one of the people of the street, but now I realized that I didn’t want to be classified with losers and drifters. Secretly I had been that far more romantic figure, the fugitive. I was an outcast to my family—jailbirds were definitely not welcome. But I hadn’t really sought the company of my homeless companions. I had made my bus a home, even if it was ephemeral compared to the fancy real estate all around Palo Alto. I felt an intense longing for its snug illusion of security, for the sense that I was free, able to head out to fresh horizons at any minute.

But something I’d stifled was rising to the surface, too—a need for people who knew and cared about me, for purpose that transcended the next stopping place. That was what had kept me in Palo Alto—along with the pretense that I was free to move on at any threat, I had enjoyed feeling like part of a community.

“Liz?” Claudia touched my arm, and I realized that my cheeks were wet. “Do you need a break?”

I shook my head and pulled a bandanna out of my pocket. “We aren’t finished until we figure out who did it, are we?” I tried a bright smile, and wasn’t surprised when it didn’t move my companions. “Trapped inside a murder mystery. Is it snowing outside?”

That got a sour smile from Drake. “No, but we’re going to force doughnuts down your throat until you talk, shweetheart.”

“No need for force.” I broke a piece off my buttermilk bar, but couldn’t bring it to my mouth. There was a lot I couldn’t seem to swallow just then. “Where were we?”

“We were figuring out who Pigpen was blackmailing.” Claudia looked back through her notes.

“But what could link Pigpen with Vivien?” I gave up all pretense of eating. “Why would anyone want to kill her?”

Drake cleared his throat. “Some people will do anything for property.”

“Vivien’s property? Who gets it?” I pushed the plate away and looked at the lukewarm dregs in my teacup.

The quality of Drake’s silence alerted me to the danger. I looked at him, and the cold gray eyes were clearly visible behind the lenses. “In her will,” he said deliberately, “she leaves her house to you."

 

Chapter 27

 

Claudia
choked, and I absently pounded her on the back. I was seeing those black bars again, swimming closer and closer. Vivien had meant to give me a wonderful surprise on the sad occasion of her death, not a motive for murdering her.

“How long have you known this?” I glared at Drake. He was the yo-yo master, and I was the yo-yo; one minute I was up there on his side, the next I was scraping the floor. If the purpose of his technique was to keep me off balance, he was doing a wonderful job.

“It came through just before I came over here.” He stared back at me, unwinking. “You deny that you knew?”

“I didn’t know.” The need for solitude, for time to adjust to all these changes, pressed me. “Poor Vivien. She meant to be so kind.”

“Her will says something about the house being yours to sell or live in, though she hopes you will live in it.”

“She didn’t like my living on the street.” I folded my arms and hugged them across my chest, trying not to shiver. “She always wanted me to move into that cottage in the back.”

“Why didn’t you?” Drake leaned forward, like some kind of twisted therapist.

“Too much money. Not mobile enough,” I said dully. “I was afraid of getting an address.” The fear seemed stupid now. Either Tony had found me after all and was weaving this delightful plot to trap me, or I had given up the chance to help a very nice person. If I’d been living there, perhaps Vivien wouldn’t have been poisoned.

Claudia got up and limped to the stove, returning in a moment with a hot cup of herb tea. “Drink this,” she said, glaring at Drake. “You’ve had a shock.”

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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