Authors: Lora Roberts
I could see the street from my seat at the table. Delores Mitchell was out there still, anxiously polishing her BMW’s door, squinting at the minuscule dent I’d called to her attention. I felt those guilty stirrings again, but when she pulled out a little hand-held vacuum cleaner and began to clean the seats, it evaporated. Neatness is fine, but that was compulsion. Listening to Carlotta, I watched the soles of Delores’s nice pumps, which stuck out the passenger door as she worked. I fantasized someone coming along, absently trying to slam the door shut—but that conjured up images of Pigpen, his hand caught in the door, his face contorted . . .
I took a few deep breaths before I could bring my attention back to Carlotta, hoping her triumphant account of agony endured would distract me from even more unpalatable thoughts.
The workshop ended at four P.M.,
and I bid the ladies farewell, lingering to take on a commission from Vivien. Since she no longer drove, I had gotten in the habit of doing her marketing every week.
“I can manage until day after tomorrow,” she said, moving toward the conference room door with her slow, cane-assisted steps. “Is that okay with you?”
“Sure,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t be arrested by then. “I’ll stop by with your stuff around nine-thirty or so on Thursday.”
“And you’ll stay for tea,” she insisted. I held the front door of the Senior Center for her.
“I’d be delighted.” We moved into the lobby, as I matched my steps to hers.
Vivien stopped and smiled at the tall man who’d hailed her.
“Why, Mr. Ramsey.” She blinked a little flirtatiously. The man smiled at her with the great warmth that some people learn in their professions—lawyers and politicians, for instance. “How nice to see you again.”
“My pleasure,” he said gallantly. He was in his mid-forties, no wedding ring, fit-looking in his nice business suit, the obligatory touch of distinguished gray in his short, thick dark hair. He looked familiar, and after a moment’s thought I placed him as a man I’d often seen at the pool, whizzing past with a kickboard and chatting with the best-looking women at the end of each lap. He glanced at me with interest but no recognition. I stick to the slow lanes at the pool and do my best to be completely anonymous to the men.
Vivien introduced us, a speculative look coming into her eyes. Like many women her age, she was an inveterate matchmaker, and she had long wanted the single women around her, for instance me and Delores Mitchell, to settle down. Me especially. She blamed all my problems on lack of a good man.
“This is Ted Ramsey, Liz. My dear friend Liz Sullivan, Mr. Ramsey. She teaches my writing workshop, you know.”
“I didn’t know.” He smiled at me, but I knew I’d been dismissed as someone with nothing of value for him. Turning back to Vivien, he lowered his voice a little.
“Have you thought about our talk, Mrs. Greely?”
Vivien looked troubled. “Well, yes, I have, Mr. Ramsey. But you know, I’m just not interested in selling my house. That senior housing is very nice, you’re right about that, but I’ve lived in my house so long now—” Her voice died away.
“I can understand,” Ramsey told her, sincerity oozing out of his every pore. “Naturally, if the idea doesn’t appeal to you, I wouldn’t press you in any way. But if you ever change your mind, I hope you’ll give me a call.”
He put his card in her knobby fingers, folding them over gently and giving her hand a little squeeze. Vivien loved it. “I certainly will, Mr. Ramsey,” she assured him earnestly.
“Nice meeting you, Ms. Sullivan.” He granted me a smile. “Hope to see you around.”
Carlotta and Delores Mitchell had been chatting, ambling slowly down the steps, but when Carlotta caught sight of Ted Ramsey she put on speed. For all her pretense of feebleness, Carlotta could be pretty nippy when she wanted to. Delores wasn’t far behind.
“Oh, Mr. Ramsey!” Carlotta laid one liver-spotted hand on his arm. “So nice to see you.” She glanced at Vivien. “Have you been successful with our reluctant one, here?”
Ted looked a little pained. Delores stepped into the breach.
“Vivien knows what she wants.” She colored a little, and glanced apologetically at Ted. It was plain that despite the ten or twelve years he had on her, she found him attractive. “I know you have a project in mind, but—”
“There are so many good projects,” Ramsey said gallantly. “Well, nice talking to you, Mrs. Greely. Mrs. Houseman,”
Carlotta looked resentfully at Ramsey’s retreating back, and turned the look on Vivien. “I hope,” she said sadly, “that I never allow my own selfish needs to take precedence over what’s best for my neighbors.” She swept out and, with another apologetic glance, Delores followed.
Vivien sighed. “She is, of course." I must have looked puzzled. “Letting her own selfish—” Vivien sighed again. “I wish the Babcocks’ house had never burned down. If their double lot hadn’t come on the market, Mr. Ramsey would never have thought of putting condos there. Carlotta really wants to move, ever since last summer when a couple of the street people stripped the fruit off her plum trees. She’s frightened of them.” She exchanged a smile with me.
"She only tolerates me because I’m a woman,” I admitted. “Last week she asked me if I had ever had head lice.”
“Surely not.” Vivien looked disapproving. “You see, Liz. You should settle down with someone like Ted Ramsey. No one would ever ask you such a question then.”
“Too high a price to pay.” I smiled to show I was teasing, though it wasn’t far from the truth.
“He’s so handsome.” Vivien raised her eyebrows. “You could do worse, Liz dear. He’s certainly well set-up, too. And very nice for a real estate developer.”
“I’ve seen his name in the
I admitted. Ted Ramsey was always so politically correct that even in an anti-development climate he was able to get projects okayed.
“He was very persuasive when he came to see me, but I don’t like the idea of selling.” Vivien walked toward the doors, leaning on her cane. “And I don’t really have to, either.”
It wasn’t any of my concern, but I hoped Vivien wouldn’t let herself be talked into a home by some slick real-estate type. We came out into the sunlight. I blinked, reaching into my bag for shades. “Sure you don’t want a ride home?”
"Walking's good for me,” she said firmly. What she really meant was that climbing into my bus was difficult for her. I watched her make her slow way down the sidewalk, and hoped that she would get home all right.
There were no police cars around. Maybe they’d gotten tired of waiting for me. The thought of their surveillance was infinitely depressing.
I drove back toward the main library, behind which was the community garden where I had a plot. I needed the soothing presence of my garden almost more than I needed to collect the ingredients for dinner.
Mine is a sunny space in one corner of the big garden. In the late afternoon there weren’t many other people around. The amount of ground each gardener gets is not huge—mine was ten feet by twenty. But I managed to get a good part of my sustenance from it.
There were still tomatoes on the vines, and peppers, and the root vegetables I’d planted in August were at their tender best. I pulled a few beets and carrots, and cut some romaine and rocket, using the garden hose to clean them.
It was pleasant in the bright air, tinged with the autumn aroma of distant smoke and the fragrance of ripe Concord grapes. I yanked out a few weeds, then cut up some potatoes and planted them with their eyes facing up. My gardening equipment is of necessity compact—just a hand fork and trowel, and my Swiss army knife. But the old man who had the plot before I’d taken it over had dug it deeply, and I found I did quite well with my meager tools. I had built a little compost bin at the back of the plot, and neighboring gardeners would often trade left-over soil amendments in exchange for cuttings of herbs or extra seedlings.
When I went out to the bus to put away my vegetables, a big, rusty, old Chevy Suburban was pulled up next to mine. Children seethed around it, clamoring for the privilege of carrying the rake, the hoe, the basket. They seemed like hundreds of kids, but I knew there were only three. Their mother slid out from behind the wheel and busied herself with something in the front seat.
“Corky carries the pitchfork.” She spoke over her shoulder. “Sam, you take the hoe. Be careful, now. Here, Mick, you take the basket.” The smallest boy had been about to howl, but was placated by his burden, almost too big for two-year-old legs. “I’ll get the rake.”
She turned around with what appeared to be a knapsack strapped to her front, and saw me. “Oh, hi, Liz. Nice garden day, isn’t it?”
“Delightful,” I said hollowly. “Here, I’ll take the rake.” This was Bridget Montrose, the writer who had gotten me my post as a workshop leader. Her home was nearer to the community garden downtown, but she’d switched during the summer. The plots behind the library have more space.
Bridget gave me the rake to carry and patted the knapsack. It moved under her hand, and a tiny fist shot up from it. I had known that the carrier must contain her newest baby, but it still caused me to step back a pace.
We walked in together. The little fist had a death grip on one of the carrier’s straps. Bridget was still patting, murmuring mother words softly. She is not a beauty, but has a kind of inner radiance that makes you forget that her face is too round and her nose is too long. I had known her since my arrival in Palo Alto; we had both attended a class at Foothill College on how to sell your writing. She’d only had two children then. We’d met off and on at various seminars and events, and become friends.
I leaned the rake against her bean trellis; her plot was two up from mine and across the way. "Thanks, Liz,” she said, smiling at me, still patting. “Moira is not so sure she wants to garden today.” She opened the carrier a little. The baby was tiny still, squirming around in its pouch, its blistered little lips puckering and suckling at nothing.
“Should you have it out like this?” I gazed in fascination at those scraps of hands, red and sloughing skin like a snake.
“It’s a lovely day, and she’s three weeks old,” Bridget said, looking at me with her eyebrows raised. “I don’t expect to get much work done, but the boys needed to do something vigorous.”
That they did. Corky was giving orders importantly, which so far as I could see Sam completely ignored. Between them they were really stirring up the dirt.
The baby made some mewling noises, for all the world like a kitten with its eyes still closed. Bridget plopped down on an overturned bushel basket and extracted the baby, opening her blouse matter-of-factly. I felt it was rude to stare, but the scene had an odd appeal for me, half curiosity and half a kind of wistful pain that I didn’t want to feel. I looked away abruptly.
“Bridget, didn’t you get involved with the police last spring? When that awful woman died?”
She looked up from absorbed contemplation of her baby, surprised. “Why, yes.” Her expression clouded. “I often think of it when I come to the garden. One of the people who died—Martin Hertshorn, remember him?—used to have a plot near mine in the downtown garden.”
I filed that information away. “Listen, was it a Detective Drake you talked to? I—I need to know about him.”
She gazed at
me for a long minute, then turned her attention back to the baby. “Yes, I met Paul Drake. A nice man, I thought. Is he—are you—?”
“He thinks I’m a murderer,” I said baldly, and then looked around to make sure the little boys weren’t in earshot. Corky and Sam were wrangling over an unfortunate worm they’d dug up. Mick, who wouldn’t understand much anyway, was busy taking everything out of Bridget’s garden basket and laying the contents in a row on the dirt. I lowered my voice. “Somebody killed Pigpen Murphy last night and dumped him under my bus.”
Bridget knew how I lived. She was one of the few regular people who could simply accept that, without probing at me for reasons and offering to help me pull myself up by my bootstraps.
“Murphy. He’s one of the street people?” She looked appalled.
“He was.” The baby pulled its head away abruptly, and milk spurted from Bridget’s nipple. She coaxed Moira back into position.
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Not after you get used to it.” Preoccupation with her baby nudged out all other feelings. She smiled at me. “Since this is the last time, I can take it.”
“You having your tubes tied?”
“That doesn’t always work, and believe me, I want it to work.” She stroked a gentle finger along Moira’s busy cheek. “Babies are darling, but never again. Emery’s having a vasectomy.”
Emery Montrose was one of those thin, nervous guys who is always charging ahead, always thinking about the next thing before he’s quite finished with the last. Somehow I couldn’t picture him willingly going under the knife, relinquishing control over a rather vital part of his body to someone else. “Well,” I said blandly. “Nice for him.”
Bridget’s laughter gurgled out. "Not at all,” she said. “Since I’m the one who had the pain of childbirth, I figure he can endure this one for me.” She plucked Moira off and tucked her back into her carrier. “No chewing,” she admonished in the voice women keep for babies. “Mommy doesn’t allow that.”
Moira looked pretty zoned to me. “I don’t think she heard you.”
“It’s all subliminal at
this stage,” Bridget agreed, zipping the carrier back up. “So, does Drake seriously suspect you?”
“He looks serious as all get-out.” I thought about the way those granny glasses reflected the light. “Can’t really tell what’s going on in that curly head, actually.”
“He can be inscrutable,” Bridget assented. “Listen.” Her voice turned brisk. “Park at our place tonight. That ordinance against sleeping in a parked vehicle won’t apply to a guest in our driveway.”
I swallowed, trying to get the words out. "Thanks,” I mumbled at last. It had been easier to be cool in a room full of police than in the presence of one friendly action.
We talked over the few facts I had, while I put in a little time weeding Bridget’s garden, which certainly needed it. The boys stopped wrangling and planted some radishes and peas, which was optimistic of them. We watered everything, leaving her garden looking much better. Bridget is a lovely person, nice as they come; however, she has no head for order.