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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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Chapter 3

 

“You the one that called us?” The cop who approached me was a woman. I took that as a good omen.

“Yes.” I gulped what was left of the tea; most of it had sloshed out as I lurched down the sidewalk. “That’s my bus.”

I stared at it longingly. There were cops all over it—inside, beneath where the remains of Pigpen Murphy languished all around the outside. I wished I’d gotten a chance to empty the plastic bucket. That’s how confused I was—catastrophe surrounded me, and I was worried that I’d look like a bad housekeeper.

The cop stared at me curiously, and I realized I had to pull myself together. People of the vagabond persuasion are at grave risk in any dealings with the police. I, especially, could end up in big trouble.

“You live in the vehicle? Alone?” She was writing things down. I had a hysterical impulse for my own notebook. I would write down what she said; she would write down what I said. A dreadful symmetry would ensue.

“I travel,” I corrected her, “Yes, alone.”

“Did you know the deceased?”

Some of the superfluity of cops were stringing cords around the bus and over the curb to the creek bank. From where I stood I could see under the bus. Pigpen’s immense shoes pointed skyward as if he were waiting his cue to roll out and join some macabre circus.

“I didn’t know him,” I said finally. “He came around. His last name was Murphy.”

“First name?”

“Beats me.” The sun was getting warmer. I took off the top layer—a red-and-white-striped poncho with a hood. “He was called Pigpen Murphy.”

She wrote it down solemnly. I guessed she hadn’t been within smelling distance of the corpse.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

One of the men cops materialized next to me. Both he and the woman watched me with remote sympathy. I didn’t feel at my intellectual best, but I tried to tell the story coherently anyway.

“Last night,” I said, “he came around. He’d done it before. He was not the kind of person to take a hint. I finally got it across that I wanted him to leave, and he left.”

The cops exchanged glances. “How did you get it across?” The man spoke for the first time. His nameplate said “Rucker.” The woman’s said “Horton.” I spent a few seconds memorizing those names while I got my thoughts in order.

“I shut the door of the bus.” Reluctantly, because I knew they would find the evidence when they pored over his body, I added, “His hand was in the way at the time.”

“You shut the door on his hand.” Horton might have smiled, if she hadn’t been in uniform. “And you said he went away.”

“First he slammed his fist through my window,” I said, scrupulously sticking to facts. “I had to bite him on the thumb, too. Then he left, going toward El Camino. I taped up the window, locked my doors, and went to sleep. I sleep very soundly.”

Now they were both writing in their little notebooks.

Horton used a ballpoint. Rucker used a mechanical pencil. My lingers itched to hold the razor-point felt tip I prefer.

“Did you hear anything in the night?” Rucker was really not bad-looking for a cop. He was young—mid-twenties, at a guess. Still downy in my opinion. It’s not that I think thirty-four is old, but the past few years have contained a lot of hard mileage, for me and my VW. Rucker looked as if the river of life had yet to sweep him under. He was tall, broad-shouldered, surfer-boy blond.

I nearly laughed at his question. “Not anymore,” I said. “If I woke up every time a car went by or the train whistles blew, I’d never get any sleep. I don’t wake up unless someone touches the bus.”

“And did anyone?” Horton held her pen poised.

“Not last night.” I looked again at the huddled shape beneath the bus. “Listen—what did he die of?”

They exchanged glances. “We don’t know as yet,” Horton said smoothly. “We’re waiting for the detectives to get here. Please tell me how you found the body.”

I made as short a story as I could of it, leaving out Old Mackie. There was no reason to set a pack of policemen breathing down his venerable neck. I could still see my whisk broom and dustpan lying on the ground beside the bus’s open door. As further corroboration, and out of devilment, I mentioned the episode of emptying my guts into the creek. One unlucky uniform had to climb down through the poison oak and scrape up whatever he could find of my effluvia.

That was the high point of my morning. They wouldn’t let me have the bus back. I found a tree a little ways down the block and leaned against it. At last the detectives came.

All of them seethed around like ants trying to drag home a cookie. It might have been entertaining if it hadn’t been my bus they were taking apart, and potentially my ass at stake. I spent a few minutes longing like crazy to rewind all this madness and start my life again just before Pigpen had come along the previous evening. If I’d known, I would have driven off five minutes before he’d shown up, and parked in one of the other spots I’d cultivated around Palo Alto.

At last one of the non-uniforms came over to the tree I had staked out and squatted down for a talk. He’d glanced over Horton’s notes. I’d watched him through the back window of the bus, rummaging in my file box. That had bothered me—a lot. Private papers are not meant to be read by any bozo who comes along.

“I’ve been through your statement, Ms. Sullivan.” He shuffled some papers he held in his hands.

“That’s not all you’ve been through.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You should.” I unclenched my hands and folded them in my lap. “You didn’t even bother to show me a search warrant before you turned my bus inside out.”

He had the grace to redden a little. He didn’t look like a cop at
all—maybe half a foot taller than I am, with a stocky build and a lot of curly, uncombed hair in a nondescript shade between brown and gray. The fact that he wore granny glasses was disarming, somehow. But still, he’d snooped in my files.

“In cases of violent death, we tend to examine everything with a fine-tooth comb. You’re a suspect, Ms. Sullivan. Maybe you haven’t understood that.”

Anger and fear have an unfortunate effect on me. I turn into a raving smartass. It took a minute before I could be sure I had my mouth under control. Deep breathing helps.

“May I see your identification?” He scowled, but he handed it to me. I took my time with it, breathing deeply and exerting control over my emotions. His name was Paul Drake, which would have been funny under other circumstances. I browsed through the rest of the leather folder that held his ID, despite his smothered protest. There was a credit card slip from a gas station, a phone message that said “Call S.
555-5578,”
and a small, blurry photograph that showed several indeterminate people sitting along a restaurant bench, their arms around each other.

I handed the leather folder back and he shoved it into his hip pocket. He wore jeans, red high-tops, and a tweed sport coat that had seen better days. Really, he wasn’t much better dressed than one of the nattier street people. I didn’t know why he was staring at me. I am fond of vegetables and had used fabric paint to duplicate some of my favorites on the gray sweatshirt that had cost $1.84 at Goodwill.

“Your identification, Ms. Sullivan.” He held out his hand, and I cannily gave him my naked driver’s license, with no supporting documentation. He took it over to the closest cruiser and reached in to use the radio. Waiting for the inevitable, I got to my feet.

“You have a couple of citations for vagrancy on your record, Ms. Sullivan,” Drake said when he came back. “Have to ask you to wait in the car for me, please.”

They took my keys, and I perched on the backseat of the cruiser, maintaining as much dignity as was possible in the circumstances. People were gathered on the sidewalks, coming out of their nice little bungalows and restored Victorians. They stared at me and at the police, who were finally scraping Pigpen out from under my bus. I thought about how long it would be before I could park overnight in that neighborhood again. It helped to divert me from the real fear that occupied my mind—how long it would be before I would even see my bus. Vagabonds are notoriously easy marks to fasten on when questions of guilt and retribution come around.

Drake hovered over the uniforms, who were having some difficulty getting Pigpen’s remains out from under the bus. In my increasingly light-headed state, the whole operation began to resemble commedia dell’arte. When at last they got Pigpen onto a stretcher, and those shoes disappeared into the ambulance, I nearly burst into applause.

The impulse to levity dried up when Drake came back with one of the uniforms, and they climbed into the cruiser. “We’ll talk at the office,” Drake said, barely glancing at me.

“What about my bus?” Among the crowd at the curb, I noticed Old Mackie, muttering and shaking and eyeing the bus with his usual yearning.

“It’s the least of your worries right now, ma’am.” Drake faced front again and we made a wide U-turn, heading toward downtown. By craning my neck I could see my bus, still surrounded by a swarm of uniforms, like bees around the hiving queen.

 

Chapter 4

 

I cooled my heels for a good couple of hours in a small room with no windows and no doors. It was unpleasantly reminiscent of a cell, which made me a claustrophobic wreck. They’d printed me, which added to my nervousness. Besides, my bladder was responding to all this negative stimulus by letting me know that I needed the bathroom again. After losing my breakfast all over the creek bank, I felt weak, although not in the least hungry. Waves of panic alternated with the memory of Pigpen’s glazed eyes. I wondered about the third degree that undoubtedly awaited me. Why was it taking so long? What were they up to, those minions of the law?

There was a time in the distant past when I truly believed that policemen were my friends. That was before various events showed me differently. I now knew that policemen weren’t anyone’s friends, although some of them could be rented as friends if you had money or influence, or both. In Palo Alto, I’d always gotten pretty fair treatment from the cops, partly due to my mobility. I was careful never to park too long in one place, to keep a low profile, to
retreat to the campgrounds at Butano or Portola State Park at the first sign of interest. I had learned a lot after being stopped for vagrancy a couple of times in Southern California, when I was just starting out on the vagabond life. I had thought it was all under control. And there were so many more available targets among the street people that I’d managed to avoid attention.

Not anymore, obviously. Even if I could miraculously elude any trouble brought on by this unsavory event, I would be branded, easily visible. And I’d grown to like Palo Alto. I’d gone so far as to put down roots in the three years I’d been living on its streets. Always a mistake for a vagabond.

It must have been after ten o’clock before I was ushered into the inner sanctum. Drake’s office was of the cubbyhole persuasion. When we were both squeezed in there wasn’t much room left over. He plopped a cup of coffee down in front of me and took a sip of his own.

“It isn’t poisoned,” he said finally. I hadn’t touched my cup.

“I don’t drink coffee.” I was examining the walls of his office, looking for clues about how to deal with him, with all the ranks of officialdom. It was pretty obvious that if the police felt like it, they could just write scapegoat all over me and call it quits.

Drake sighed heavily and left the room. He came back after a minute with another Styrofoam cup. The smell of Red Zinger filled the room. I really don’t like it either, but at least it wasn’t coffee, and the warm cup was comforting.

“According to your story,” Drake said, taking another belt of coffee, “you had a disagreement with this Murphy last night and he went away, relatively unharmed. Sometime during the night his dead body turned up under the car you were sleeping in.” He looked up from the papers he’d been reading. “That’s enough to get you in trouble right there. No camping allowed on the streets of Palo Alto.”

“I wasn’t camping.” The defense came automatically. I pretended to sip some of the Red Zinger. “I meant to go up to Portola State Park, but I was overcome by sleepiness and just pulled over.”

“Sure, sure.” Drake wasn’t buying it, obviously.

“I should have taken my chances with that winding road,” I added, putting a little more straw into my bricks.

Drake leaned back in his chair. “These other vagrancy infractions,” he said softly. “Do you have a permanent address?”

“I have a post office box,” I said after a minute. “I have a bank account. If I were living on a boat no one would give me any trouble. What’s the law against living in a bus?”

“No law.” He looked uncomfortable.

“Just isn’t allowed in nice Palo Alto, huh? I’ll have to get a slot in the trailer park. Except—there aren’t any trailer parks here, are there? They’d be too tacky for these parts.”

He shot me a look, and I shut up. Something in me wanted to antagonize him—the stupid part of me, I guess.

“There are, actually.” He crushed his cup and threw it away. “Trailer parks. I live in one of them.”

This was interesting information. I tried to fit it into my preconceptions about him, and couldn’t. “There’s always Redwood City,” I muttered. The Styrofoam cup cracked in my hand, and a little Red Zinger dripped onto my sweatshirt. “This cup is politically incorrect, you know.”

He took a deep breath. “We know, Ms. Sullivan. But it would be even worse for the environment to throw them out without using them first.”

I set the cup back on his desk, leak and all. “Well, it’s been nice chatting with you. Are you finished asking questions?’

“You’re not going anywhere.”

“You charging me?”

For a minute he just glared. “Ms. Sullivan—” He ran his hands through his hair, giving himself an even wilder aspect. “You don’t seem like the kind of woman who usually hangs out with the street people. What’s the story?”

“There’s no story.” For lack of anything better to do with my hands, I picked up the cup of Red Zinger again. “I don’t hang out with anyone. Not them, not you.”

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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