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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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“A woman more likely than a man, if he was conscious,” Drake said thoughtfully. “He wouldn’t be suspicious of a woman.”

“And then drag him over to my bus—for some odd reason—and put him underneath it—”

“She has a point there, Paolo.” Morales smiled at me. “If he was killed somewhere along the creek, it would be far easier to tumble him into it, where it might look accidental.”

“A strong woman, even if she was short, could drag him that distance,” Drake argued. He was enjoying himself—there was something expansive about the way he sipped his coffee. “We know Murphy was setting out to visit someone, and Ms. Sullivan was doubtless the person on his mind.”

“So complimentary of you to think so,” I murmured, trying to control my panicky breathing. That sense of impending claustrophobia I’d felt in the holding room came back to stifle me. “If your informant is correct, Murphy mentioned the bank. Perhaps he was simply going to use his autoteller card.”

Drake stared at me for a minute, and burst into laughter. “We better check up on that, Bruno.” He got to his feet, leaving his half-full cup of coffee on the table. “Back to work, eh?” He turned away from the table, and then swung around again. “Oh, here you are, Ms. Sullivan.” He tossed my keys onto the table. “You can pick up your other stuff at the front desk. Don’t leave town, now. It would look very bad.”

The release from tension was almost painful. I stared after Drake, resentful and elated at the same time.

Morales patted my arm. “It’s just his way, Ms. Sullivan. But he’s right—you must cooperate with us now or you risk being detained. Where will you be staying?”

This was a pitfall I hadn’t seen. Morales noticed my hesitation. “You must give the clerk an address, you see,” he told me gently. “Perhaps it would be better if you found a hotel room for a while. The Carver Arms—”

I shuddered.

“It’s cheap,” he insisted. “And we will investigate as quickly as possible.”

"I’ll find someplace. Can I let you know later?”

He shook his head. “The clerk can make a reservation for you,” he said. So much for Mr. Nice Guy. “We will be in touch.” He hesitated, and added, “If it would be better, I can have you taken into custody. I think you would prefer the Carver Arms.”

“I think you’re right.” I offered him my hand. “Thanks for your help, Detective Morales.”

“Be careful.” He shook my hand gently and guided me down the hall toward the front desk. “We don’t want anything bad to happen to you, Ms. Sullivan."

It was a nice thought, but it didn’t exactly reassure me.

 

Chapter 6

 

The bus was parked in the underground lot beneath City Hall. Inside it was a stilled maelstrom, where the contents of my life had been whirled through the bureaucracy and, I hoped, come out the other side. I sat in the driver’s seat for several minutes, not moving, not really breathing, before I could put the key in the ignition. Carefully, as if guiding an invalid, I drove up the ramp and onto Bryant Street. By the time I got to Channing I was shaking so hard I had to pull over.

For vagabonds, mobility becomes essential. Nothing is as fear-inducing as being deprived of the means of getting away, getting out of town. There was no knowing how close I had come to losing this, to being penned like livestock awaiting its fate. The relief was a euphoria close to panic, especially when I considered that, though I had wheels, I was no longer free. My pen was larger than a cell, but I was tethered within it, my fate still uncertain.

At last I got a grip on myself. Hunger made me lightheaded. It was past breakfast, too early for lunch. I gobbled some peanut butter crackers and headed for the library, stopping along the way at a deserted construction site on Cowper to empty the plastic bucket in one of a bevy of Porta-potties. I wondered if the police had seized their opportunity to get a specimen, but that didn’t matter, except for the affront to my civil liberties. I was clean, even if the bus, after its intensive search, was not. For the time being, I left the mess alone. I wanted the quiet calm of the library reading room. And murder or no murder, I had a living to make.

Once at my table, with the volumes I needed, I couldn’t concentrate. I kept seeing Pigpen Murphy’s face, distorted with pain after I shut the door on his hand. If I’d known he was going to die, I might have been kinder.

But I doubt it.

At last I pulled my thoughts back to the research I was doing. I had gotten a go-ahead from
Smithsonian
on a query that dealt with the rowdy little town of Mayfield, which had been gradually overcome and engulfed by Leland Stanford’s statelier creation, Palo Alto. As late as yesterday, completing that article and seeing it in print had been my all-encompassing goal.
Smithsonian
paid splendidly, especially compared with
True Story
or
Grit.
It was a credit to be proud of. And once admitted to their coterie of freelancers, a writer had a good chance of selling them another article. I had several ideas composting in the back of my mind.

But I couldn’t harness my concentration away from fruitless speculation on this encroaching blot of murder. It didn’t help that my current research was a necessary but rather boring perusal of contemporary documents. Bound volumes of the
Mayfield Enterprise
were stacked on the table. I meant to
trace the feisty little town’s early defiance of Stanford’s edicts, and its later capitulation, through the hints and signs that appeared as early as 1897. I worked away doggedly for an hour before realizing that I didn’t remember anything I’d read. Finally I returned the volumes to the reference desk.

I drove up Hopkins and made a U-turn, parking beside the Magic Forest, a nice grove of redwoods donated to the city by some arboreal-minded rich person. It took half an hour to tidy the bus. My resentment against the police grew. Why should they have the power to paw through my underwear? Sniggering at my ragged bras was not likely to get them further toward identifying Pigpen Murphy’s killer.

After everything was in order I collected the stuff I would need and walked through the Magic Forest to the swimming pool. The lunchtime lap swimmers were leaving, so the lanes were uncrowded. I changed in the women’s dressing room, nodding to the regulars with whom I had a passing acquaintance, and went out to submerge my irritation and angst in a good twenty laps.

Afterward I took a shower, not minding that the water came out in a skin-pummeling blast that had the other women wincing and dancing away. I washed my hair and dressed in clean clothes. I swim nearly every day, no matter what the weather. It costs over thirty dollars a month for the tickets, but the shower makes it well worthwhile. And it’s nice to be in company with others of my sex. The other women don’t even give my faded, second-hand swimsuits a glance.

Feeling more relaxed, I walked out the gate and headed back around the pool toward my van. There was a police car parked behind it.

The cop didn’t get out when he spotted me. I slung my bag and rolled-up bundle of wet things into the bus, instead of spreading them on the roof like I usually did for a quick drying session. Nobody hindered me when I got into the driver’s seat. When I pulled out, the cop car pulled out. It  followed me all the way downtown.

I felt sick again, and underneath that, enraged. Was this my future—constantly being followed by agents of the law?

Boundaries and restrictions chafe us all, but especially those to whom freedom is as necessary as clean water. It galled me to think that I was expected to hunker down in the stale-urine-scented ambience of the Carver Arms and wait for the police to consent to inform me of what they were doing.

The parking lot behind the Senior Center was full, but I managed to get a space on the street. The police car cruised slowly past. I saw the cop inside talking on his radio. I spread my wet things out as well as I could in the sun that came through the bus windows, opening one for ventilation. If anyone started poking around, I could see them from the conference room where my workshop was held.

I was so busy craning around looking for more police persecution that I bumped right into Delores Mitchell as she came out of the Senior Center.

Delores was perfectly dressed, as usual, in her demure little bank-vice-president’s suit, with her demure little pumps on. It is a sign of pettiness, I suppose, to find a woman irritating merely because she is younger than you, has an important job, and still finds time to volunteer as a teacher at the Senior Center. She ran a class on financial planning and tax tips that was much more popular than my class. Delores herself was popular; I heard on every side how nice she was, how considerate. Maybe that’s what I couldn’t forgive.

She gave me her usual sweet, conscientious smile. “Hi, Liz. The ladies were beginning to think you weren’t coming. Car trouble?”

“No.” Delores drove a BMW, naturally. It was parked right out front, taking up two spaces—her idea of protection for its gleaming red paint. “But isn’t that a dent on the passenger door of your car? Shame to see it there—and what’s that smudge?”

“On
my
car?” Delores dashed across the sidewalk and I went on into the building, a little guilt mixed with my internal amusement.

I conducted a writing workshop at the Senior Center twice a week. There are many more qualified than I to undertake this, I hasten to point out, and many of them had. One by one, they’d given it up. The last person to run it, Bridget Montrose, had consented to fill in temporarily, and after she could no longer hack it, had suggested me, and also suggested, bless her, that a small stipend accompany my efforts. This had proved satisfactory to all parties. I enjoyed a steady income, even if it did no more than keep me in postage. And humility is not a bad quality in a writer’s workshop leader. I knew markets, for those who wrote for publication, and I enjoyed the stories of those who wrote for themselves. In the past year, we’d all benefited.

The ladies were gathered around the long table in a room off the lobby of the Senior Center, which used to be the police station. I gave some thought to that while I settled myself at the head of the table with the notebook that I keep for the class.

“Are we all here?” I glanced around the table, where six women were seated, instead of the seven I’d expected. They were the most faithful attendees in the history of the world. Only illness or a trip kept them away from the workshop. “Where’s Eunice?”

“Didn’t you know?” Carlotta Houseman leaned forward from her seat at my right. “Eunice died last Friday, Liz. I thought they’d have told you.”

Maybe they had. I hadn’t checked my post office box that morning, having other things on my mind. Or maybe they’d just given up. People don’t send things in the mail in this telephone age, even if you don’t have a phone. They just stop trying to contact you. It has its advantages.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Eunice Giacommetti had been confined to a wheelchair for the past couple of months, but she’d still enjoyed the workshop, and was as careful a listener as you’d want to have, even if she hadn’t managed to write much. “Was it another stroke?”

“Her heart, I think,” Helen Petrie said vaguely. “After that last stroke, the doctor told her it was just a matter of time.”

“It is for all of us,” snorted Janet Aronson. She was a big, rawboned woman with iron-gray curls that snapped around her head, and the kind of pale blue eyes that could see through bullshit at forty paces.

“I couldn’t get hold of you for the memorial service yesterday, Liz,” Vivien Greely said gently. She was looking frail too. Her gnarled fingers gripped the handle of her footed cane. She lived alone, in a rather run-down little bungalow on a huge lot north of University. The cottage in back, even more run-down, was rented to a succession of Stanford students, who gave Vivien a hand when things got beyond her, as they frequently did. One of the students had once scraped together enough cast-off computer equipment to get Vivien started, since keyboarding was easier on her hands than writing with a pen. From there, she’d never looked back.

“Poor Eunice was alone in the house. She should never have stayed there after the stroke. I warned her.” Carlotta sounded the tiniest bit complacent. She lived next door to Vivien; Eunice lived around the corner from them. They had all been neighbors for thirty years or more.

“That’s the way to go,” Janet trumpeted, glaring back at Carlotta. “No one to fuss over you, no one to haul you off to the life-support system. Just one clear call—”

“If we’re going to quote Tennyson—” Helen Petrie began.

“We’re not.” I looked around the table. Freda Vaughn’s faded brown eyes had filled with easy tears; she was dabbling at them with an embroidered hanky. Emily Pierce was scribbling in a card, which she signed with a flourish and passed to
Vivien.

“Sympathy card. I thought we could all sign it,” she announced. “Poor Eunice. A blessed release, I suppose.”

“That’s right.” Carlotta made a little tent with her fingers and looked soulful. “Poor Eunice is beyond suffering now.” She shook her head sadly. “She should have sold out when she had the opportunity. They might have been able to save her if she’d had assisted living.”

“You’re selling, Carlotta?” Emily looked interested. She lived in a different neighborhood, closer to the Lucie Stern Community Center. “What kind of offers did you get, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“It is rather confidential at this point.” Carlotta preened a little. “But it’s a substantial sum. I could move just about anywhere—even the Forum, if I wanted. There’s still a chance it will go through.” She looked meaningfully at Vivien. “I always say, don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Vivien was unruffled. “I don’t want to leave my home, Carlotta. And neither did Eunice.” She turned to me. “Are there any exciting manuscripts today, Liz?”

We got down to our reading, but I thought about Eunice while I should have been listening to Carlotta’s account of her first encounter with childbirth, some fifty-odd years ago. Eunice had mostly written about her life, too—not with the belligerent vigor Janet used, or the self-satisfaction Carlotta employed, but with modesty and insight. We would miss her contributions to the workshop.

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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