Authors: Lora Roberts
“You knew who this Murphy was,” he said, scanning the report again. “You obviously buy into that life-style.”
“What life-style are we discussing?”
“You have no fixed address,” he pointed out, pawing through the papers that strewed his desk as if the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden there somewhere. “The street people know you as someone who keeps to herself, who carries it to
an extreme, even for them. You—”
“Wait a minute.” It was getting warm in the room. I peeled off the gray sweatshirt with the vegetables and was down to my final layer, a pink-flowered long underwear top originally owned by a woman of immense proportions, judging from the slack that existed between my hands and the ends of the sleeves. I rolled them up four times before they cleared my wrists. “You’ve been asking after me on the street?”
“Field work,” he said mildly. His glasses flashed when he glanced at my chest. I could have kept my sweatshirt on, but I didn’t see any reason why I should roast to preserve Detective Drake from the necessity of admiring my figure. I don’t choose my fashions to enhance the body—in fact, the reverse.
“So what did you find out?” There was another reason why I’d have to move on. When this was over with, even if I were cleared of complicity in Pigpen’s death, there would still be people with long memories for trouble who’d be wary of me. The underground community is very tight. For those living on the fringes of society, they have a touching faith in the law. If the law fingered me as a killer, if my innocence were never proved, I would be doubly outcast.
“Not much,” he said, giving me a look. “Rucker asked around—he knows a few of them. You’re considered friendly, but not matey. You have some nice things for someone in your economic stratum, it’s been noticed.”
I hoped that the police were guarding my van.
“Well,” I said as nonchalantly as I could, “there you have it. My life in a nutshell. Any more questions?”
“Where did the nice things come from?” Drake watched me, his face impassive, his glasses catching the light.
“I earned them.” The Red Zinger was cooler now, and actually more palatable. “I work, Detective Drake. This is America, after all.”
“What do you work at?” The skin around his mouth tightened.
“I’m a writer.” The word made me glance around absentmindedly for my notebook, which I had slipped into the big carryall. At least the police hadn’t got their mitts on it. “As you may know, writers make on the average less than seven thousand dollars a year. Hence, the van. I earn enough to be comfortable in it. I couldn’t begin to afford to live anywhere else unless I hang out under the El Camino underpass with the rest of the bums.’’
“What do you write?” He didn’t back off, which was the result I had hoped for with the disclosure of my meager income. Though I prefer not to mention such vulgar topics, there’s no denying that most people will avoid someone whose income is too low even to register on the tax tables.
“I am a literary craftsman.” His expression didn’t change. “I carry on the tradition of the scribe. I write anything, anywhere, for anyone.”
Grit. True Confessions. Sewanee Review. Police Story. Family Circle.
Organic Gardener. Bon Appetit.
He wrote them all down, wrinkling his forehead over a couple of them.
“If you’re published, how come you don’t make more?”
I said patiently, “There aren’t many magazines that pay a living wage, and I haven’t yet managed to crack them. Just because I write a great article doesn’t mean anyone is obliged to buy it, although I am doing better each year. To rent an apartment around here you need first and last month’s rent and a hefty deposit. I couldn’t find a room in someone else’s house for what I earn.” I sat up a little straighter. “And if I could, I wouldn’t. My life suits me fine, Detective Drake. I have everything I need, and enough leisure—"
The office door opened. “Paolo. Sorry to be late.”
Drake waved permission to enter. “Hey, don’t worry about it, Bruno. This is Ms. Sullivan. About the Murphy killing.”
The other man perched on one edge of Drake’s desk, examining me with real sympathy in his tender brown eyes. “Bruno Morales,” he said, extending a hand. I shook it before I realized I was going to. “How are you feeling, Ms. Sullivan? That was not a nice thing for you to find.”
I felt warmed through by this simple little speech. “I got sick all over the creek bank,” I confided artlessly. And then thought, Was that me?
“So I heard.” He turned his gaze on Drake, who seemed to squirm a little. “You’re not giving Ms. Sullivan a hard time, are you, Paolo?”
“Of course not.” Drake was defensive. “She hasn’t given a very coherent account of herself, though.”
“How can you say that?” Morales waved some papers he held in his hand. “All witnesses should be so succinct.” He turned to me, smiling again. “Admirable, Ms. Sullivan.”
“Thank you.” I had the wild thought that Morales had brought a kind of tea-party atmosphere with him. Any minute now he was going to offer a plate of little sandwiches and ask me how my family was.
“Is there someone you would like to call?” His nice face was worried. “The clerk says you haven’t even called a lawyer yet.”
“Do I need one?” I knew a lawyer to
call. But like most of the world, he was hung up on payment. And I didn’t care for the kind of payment he had suggested in the past.
Morales considered it. “No, not exactly,” he said at last. “We don’t really have grounds enough to charge anyone yet.” He bent his limpid gaze on me. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Mr. Murphy spent most of his time, would you?”
I stared back gravely into those warm brown eyes. “I never visited his pied-à-terre, if that’s what you mean.”
His face relaxed a bit. Of course they knew where Murphy hung out. They’d been talking to all the street people. Those folks wouldn’t tell more than they could get away with, but Murphy was probably no more popular with them than I was.
Drake leaned back in his chair, not quite smiling. I glanced from Morales to him. “Is this your usual method?” They both stared at me blankly. “Good cop, bad cop? He”— I pointed to Drake—"scares the suspect, and you come along and apply balm.”
Neither of them bothered to reply. They chased me around the same old territory for a little while longer, and then a distraction came up. The surfer boy that I’d seen earlier came in.
“Rucker.” Paul Drake stood up to greet him, taking the inevitable sheaf of papers from him. “What’s new?”
Rucker looked at me, hesitant, and Drake gestured him into speech.
“Talked to an old guy they call Mackie. He said he walked past Ms. Sullivan’s vehicle early this morning.” Rucker glanced at me, both apologetic and accusing. “Says he spoke with Ms. Sullivan here and tried to
tell her there was a body under her bus, but she didn’t seem to catch on. She was eating breakfast, he said.”
All the masculine eyes in the room were fixed on me. “So that’s what he meant,” I said. “I thought he was just talking about the broken glass.”
“This man could be a witness in your favor, Ms. Sullivan. Why didn’t you tell us about your encounter with him?” Morales shook his head sorrowfully over my lapse.
“Old Mackie is not exactly the most reliable character witness,” I pointed out. “And I didn’t think you should be pestering him. He’s old and—and not well.”
“Drunk as a loon, he was,” Rucker said bluntly. With him in the doorway, the little office was crowded and hot. I didn’t mind the lack of space—I’m used to that. But the heat made me wish I’d put on something short-sleeved that morning under the long underwear top. I don’t mind cold too much, but heat bothers me.
“We expect a full account from you of every little thing that happened to you from your meeting with Murphy last night on,” Drake said softly, his eyes hard behind his wire-rims. “Anything else you’ve neglected to tell us?”
I thought for a minute. “I had an orange for breakfast,” I said innocently. “But then, you probably know that already.”
Morales’s mouth twitched, but Drake wouldn’t loosen up. “I mean it, Ms. Sullivan,” he snarled. “If you’re not the guilty party in this whole setup, does it occur to
you that someone planted a dead body right where it would do you the most harm?”
There it was in the open, a thought I’d been suppressing rather successfully. “Actually,” I said, “it has. And if you want to know who would do that to a sweet young thing like me, the answer is—I don’t know.”
I couldn’t keep the tremble out of my voice, and it seemed to occur to Drake for the first time that he’d been hot-boxing me for a quite a while.
“Let’s take a break,” he said gruffly. “The ladies’ room is that way—the women’s room, or whatever,” he added to my raised eyebrows. “Right next to the canteen. We’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”
He didn’t have to add that he didn’t want me to run away. In any case, I had nowhere to go, and no way to get there.
It was blissful to be alone for a while. I attended to my bodily functions, which were by now quite insistent. The clerk had given me back my big bag, after searching it and removing my Swiss army knife. But I had toothpaste and a hairbrush, and my sandalwood soap in a plastic bag. I washed my hands and brushed my hair, put the vegetable sweatshirt back on, and eased the door open. I was at the end of the hall, and there was an exit right across from me. I looked at it for a minute, wondering if the alarm really would sound. Finally I went on into the canteen.
canteen was full of plastic chairs and Formica-topped tables. Uniformed cops clustered around one table. A man and woman sat across from each other at another, holding hands as if there was nothing else on earth to hold onto. Most of the tables were empty.
There was a machine that gave various forms of hot drinks. I dialed up a cup of hot chocolate, dumped some of the powdered. creamer into it, and took it over to the table in the corner where Drake and Morales sat, watching me.
“So,” I said with breezy cheerfulness—or tried to—"isn’t it about time for me to be heading out? Hate to keep you longer.”
They were still watching me, Morales looking sober, Drake with the fluorescent light making blanks of his wire-rims. “Sit down,” he said softly. “Please.”
I sat. Drake leaned forward, and I could see his eyes. They were gray—the pale, cold gray of frozen sidewalks. I had a sick feeling, as if they had at last discovered me to be a fraud, as if they were getting my cell ready for me.
“We’ve just gotten a report,” he said, “from a man who admitted to drinking with Murphy from eight-thirty last night until after ten.” He paused, thinking this should mean something to me, I guess. I sat there, not having been commanded to
do anything else, letting the coldness spread inside me.
“According to him,” Drake went on after a moment, "Murphy had a lot of money on him, in spite of already being drunk. They bought a bottle and drank that, with Murphy bellowing about women and what bitches they were. Then he pulled out another wad of money and said, "There’s more where this came from. I’m asking for a raise, and I’ll get it, with what I know!’ They bought another bottle, and Murphy drank half of it before he staggered off. The other guy asked where he was going, and he said he was going to the bank.”
There was a small silence. I mustered my voice, hoping it would come out normally. “I can see that you believe I am the bank.” The words didn’t quaver, and I took a breath to go on. “But since there is no currency in which I would have had commerce with Pigpen Murphy, you’ll have to look farther afield.”
I should have kept my mouth shut. Drake lifted an eyebrow.
“You’re an educated woman, Ms. Sullivan. Where did you go to school?”
I had a moment of intense relief, so strong it was almost like a drug. So they hadn’t done a complete background check on me—yet, anyway.
“I’m self-taught,” I said, striving for a relaxed, unworried tone.
Bruno Morales was still concerned by my speaking ill of the dead.
“Why did you hate Mr. Murphy so much? When you make such a point of your feelings—”
“Hate?” I looked at him, astonished. “I didn’t hate him. I just despised him.” I looked at them both, wretched judgmental males that they were. “Actually,” I went on recklessly, “I despise most men, as a general rule.”
They stared at me for a minute, then glanced at each other. “I see,” said Drake, finally. His voice was carefully noncommittal.
“I’m not gay, either.” I stirred my cocoa and tried not to feel defensive. “I just don’t get involved.”
They were silent for a moment. “So you didn’t get involved with Mr. Murphy?” Bruno Morales had a puzzled crease between his eyebrows.
“Give me credit for a little good taste,” I muttered. “No, I had no relationship whatsoever with Murphy, aside from being badgered by him whenever he saw me.” I glanced at Drake, unable to read his expression. “Lots of men are like that. They see any solitary woman as available. I wasn’t.” I thought that over. “I’m not.”
“So if a man was insistent enough, bothered you enough, you just might pick up the nearest heavy object and dot him one, is that it?” Drake made the suggestion in a smooth voice, ignoring Morales’s distressed cluck.
It took an effort, but I kept my expression blank. “I have never hit anyone over the head,” I said shortly. It was the truth, as far as it went.
“Ms. Sullivan.” Morales shook his head, concerned. “You have no alibi. You were in the area where the crime was committed—”
“How do you know that?” I remembered his earlier comment. "What if he was killed elsewhere and dumped under my bus?” It was more than surreal to be sitting with policemen, having cocoa that tasted like coffee and discussing the violent death of someone I knew, if only slightly. Time seemed to stretch out, the way it does during intense experiences.
“He was alive when he was shoved beneath your vehicle,” Drake said. He leaned back in his chair, as if he were enjoying himself. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have bled so much.”
“I see.” What I saw was the steel jaws of the justice system closing around me. They could make a case against me—they were making it. There was little I could do to stop them. “And you think a woman my size could hit a big guy like Murphy over the head—”