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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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The setting sun sent cold shadows away from the trees. Bridget herded her children toward the parking lot, asking me to dinner but taking my refusal gracefully. I’ve babysat her kids before. It was a deafening experience, and I felt the need of quiet just then. I promised to show up around nine.

When they’d left, I turned my compost heap, adding the stuff I saved from day to day in another plastic bucket with a lid. Then I headed for one of the picnic areas in Rinconada Park. Using my one-burner propane stove—bought with the proceeds of a sale to
Grit
—I made rice pilaf with some of the fresh vegetables, and tossed the rest into a salad. It was delicious. I cleaned up the dishes and fixed a cup of mint tea, from my own herbs. There was still a little light left. I put on the poncho against the early evening chill.

I was reading
Kai Lung’s Golden Hours
and eating a Rome Beauty when Detective Drake sat down opposite me at the picnic table.

 

Chapter 8

 

He stared at me while I finished the apple—not hurrying my bites. I kept reading, and finally he plucked the book out of my hands and turned it around, looked at the title, put it aside. “Ms. Sullivan,” he said.

I met his eyes.

“You’re not at the Carver Arms.”

“You really are a good detective, you know?” As soon as I’d said it, I remembered I was going to avoid confrontation. “I canceled the reservation.”

“Considerate of you.” He sounded just short of having a snit-fit. “You didn’t let the department know.”

“Something told me you’d find out.” I looked around. “Little did I realize, when I read James Bond in my cradle, that one day I too would be shadowed.”

Drake took a deep, ostentatiously patient breath. “There’s no camping allowed in city parks.”

“I don’t plan to camp anywhere.”

“Perhaps you’d be kind enough to tell me where you plan to spend the night, then?”

“When I arrive at
my destination, you’ll probably be among the first to know.”

He turned red, perhaps with rage. “You,” he said through clenched teeth, “are just barely not in jail, Ms. Sullivan. It wouldn’t take much for me to decide you belong there.”

I folded my hands politely on the table. “You’re harassing me, Detective Drake. I’m following orders; I’m not leaving town.” My hands were clenched together so tightly it took an effort to relax them. “Look, I haven’t committed any crime. While you devote yourself to me, the person who killed Pigpen is somewhere around, free to repeat himself.”

He ran his hands through his hair, stirring it up even further. No wonder it looked like he styled it with a Cuisinart. “So you say,” he muttered. “But what evidence there is points just one place—to you.”

I couldn’t read his face. The sun had finally finished with the day; it was growing darker. A cold wind picked up dead magnolia leaves and sent them along the ground, scraping and rattling like bones being shaken together.

“You should do your job better, then,” I said finally, uneasy under that steady scrutiny. “I don’t like my taxes supporting cops too stupid to arrest the right person.”

An unwilling chuckle escaped him. “God, you’ve got a nasty mouth on you.” He came around and stared down at me. He wasn’t a tall man, not much more than five-eight, but to a short person sitting down, he loomed. So I got up too, and he moved closer. He was standing right up against me. “It looks good, though.”

“My mouth is nothing to do with you,” I said carefully, around the uncomfortable mixture of apprehension and anticipation that his words sent through me.

“Did I say it was?” He stepped back, and I thought there was honest surprise in his expression. “Just a lame compliment, ma’am. It’s not like I plan to kiss you or anything. That would be sexual harassment.”

“You’re damned straight,” I muttered.

He didn’t say anything else, just turned, around and walked off. By the time I thought of a good retort, he was driving away.

* * * *

It was a quarter to nine when I pulled into Bridget’s driveway. I killed some time tidying up my stuff. When the relative silence signaled that the kids were in bed, I tapped on the back door.

Bridget let me into the kitchen. Emery called hello, but stayed in the living room, engulfed in an easy chair and
Dr. Dobb's Journal
.
He’s in software publishing. The kitchen smelled of herb tea and brownies. Little Moira occupied a basket in the middle of the big round table, like some kind of animated centerpiece.

Bridget and I settled down to hash over Pigpen’s murder. I had barely filled her in on the events of my day when the front door suffered a violent assault.

Grumbling, Emery heaved himself out of his chair and went to answer it. Paul Drake burst into the house, scowling like his eyebrows had been wired together.

“Where—oh, there you are,” he hollered at me. Bridget and I were standing in the kitchen doorway.

“Hello, Paul. Nice to see you,” Emery said. I wondered if Bridget had explained the situation to him. “Hey, the kids are asleep, okay?”

Drake mumbled something at him and stalked over to me. “So now you’re going to involve Bridget in this mess,” he thundered quietly.

Bridget shushed him, but too late. Moira, it turned out, didn’t like angry voices when she was feeling drowsy.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Paul,” Bridget said. She spoke in a soothing voice while she held Moira on her shoulder, but she was glaring at him. “Liz is a friend of mine, and I don’t see what business it is of yours if I invite her over.”

He looked at her with a kind of baffled tenderness, and I realized that Bridget had claimed another victim. She doesn’t usually recognize it when men get crushes on her, because she isn’t expecting it. Other women don’t expect it either. She’s in her mid-thirties, about my age; in spite of four kids and a devoted husband, there’s some virginally seductive quality about her that brings out men’s protective instincts.

“Biddy,” Paul Drake said to her, “you don’t want to be mixed up in another murder investigation.”

Emery had given up on Dr. Dobb’s. “She isn’t mixed up in it,” he told Drake. “Liz is our friend, and she’s completely trustworthy. She hasn’t killed anyone. I don’t like guests in my house being hassled.”

Emery didn’t seem too fond of Drake. He knew Bridget’s effect on guys susceptible to her brand of femininity. He also knew he had nothing to worry about. But I guess he worried anyway.

Bridget sat down at the kitchen table, poured another cup of herb tea, and put Moira to her breast. “Paul, really, you’ve made a bad mistake if you think Liz is the one you’re after.” She pushed the cup toward him with a wide, friendly smile. “Sit down. Let’s talk about it.”

Drake dithered for a minute, but he sat down. So did Emery. We drank tea and ate brownies—all but Moira, who got hers second-hand—and discussed the events of the previous twenty-four hours. Bridget brought out three or four far-out theories about the killing. When she started pressing Drake for details of his investigation, he finally took himself off, completely forgetting to blast me anymore for involving his secret honey.

I hadn’t said much, partly to keep a low profile, and partly because I was choking down stupid disappointment. Like a fool, I’d let myself nourish a little core of female satisfaction based on my last encounter with Drake. Seems a woman never really learns her lesson where men are concerned.

The rest of us sat at the table for a while more, kicking the situation around and trying to decide who would have wanted to kill Pigpen Murphy.

“He sure sounds disposable,” Emery said, after I’d given them a brief sketch of Pigpen’s most prominent character traits. “But who would take the trouble to do it?”

“Someone who hated street people?” Bridget let Moira’s tiny fingers curl around hers. “He would look like the epitome of one, that’s for sure.”

“Did he get into trouble?” Emery inspected the brownies carefully, finally breaking one in half. “I don’t need this,” he mumbled. “Who did he hang out with, anyway?” The brownie vanished.

“He was one of the under-the-overpass crowd.” I pushed the brownie plate away when Bridget passed it to me. “There’s a whole little subdivision down there. Alonso is the one I’ve mainly seen Pigpen with. I don’t really know any of them.”

Bridget was frowning. “If one of his friends did it, why put the body under your bus? Why not just leave it wherever, or put it in the bushes or something? That seems pretty premeditated to me.”

“Now, Biddy,” Emery said uneasily.

“Maybe,” Bridget went on, unheeding, “it’s someone trying to get at you, Liz. Not an enemy of Pigpen’s at all, just of you.” She looked at me, concerned. “Why don’t you sleep on our couch tonight?”

 “Now, Biddy,” Emery said more firmly. “You’re letting your imagination run away with you again. Liz doesn’t need anything more to worry about.”

I turned down the offer of the couch. But Bridget’s suggestion, mixed with speculation about Drake, kept me awake in my bus, long after I’d put
Kai Lung’s Golden Hours
away.

 

Chapter 9

 

At three thirty-five the next morning I was awakened by someone around my bus. Not for the first time in my vagabond life, I wondered if I should get a gun. When I finally managed to nerve myself to part the curtains, a uniformed policeman stared back at my sleep-befuddled eyes.

After that, I didn’t sleep anymore.

Eventually the gray light came, and the sounds of children’s scuffles from inside Bridget’s house, and the thin wail of a baby. I debated going inside, but figured the chaos level wouldn’t be enhanced by my presence. I stirred around, getting dressed, washing my face in cold water. The knock on the bus’s sliding door took me by surprise.

It was Corky, his six-year-old face freckled and smiling, his red hair standing up in a series of magnificent cowlicks. “Mom says come and have some pancakes,” he relayed, his gaze traveling around the inside of the bus. “Gee, this is great. You have your own sink and everything!”

“Just like a house,” I agreed, climbing out. "After breakfast, if your mom doesn’t need you, maybe you’d like to help me get things in order.”

“Cool,” he proclaimed, leading the way around to the back door. “But I have to go to school.”

“Some time soon, then.” I followed him through the kitchen door. The room was full of breakfast perfume—pancakes, coffee, the sharp, sweet aroma of fresh-squeezed oranges. Bridget turned from the stove to wave her spatula.

“Help yourself to the bathroom,” she said, smiling. She wore the baby strapped to her chest like a shield. “I’m fixing you a short stack.”

Emery was just coming out of the bathroom, his face preoccupied, already wearing the power clothes—tie, nice shirt, shined shoes, and all. “Morning,” he mumbled. Although he’d been cordial and understanding the night before, his vibes now seemed standoffish. I didn’t blame him. If he knew the police had spent a lot of time last night hanging around his house, he doubtless had second thoughts about my desirability as a driveway guest. I had them, too. Bridget was my friend—a commodity scarce and treasured—and I wasn’t going to risk our friendship by sticking around. The Carver Arms couldn’t be as bad as having policemen shining flashlights at you at three thirty-five A.M.

I washed again, in warm water this time, and used the toilet. The shower looked inviting, but I could wait until after my swim. My reflection in the steamy minor above the sink was alarmingly insubstantial, as if I’d already begun fading away from real life. I plowed a few vertical furrows through the steam, to see my face behind bars. It was not a pretty sight. I cleaned the mirror with a towel and headed back to the kitchen.

Emery was at the table, inhaling pancakes and the morning newspaper. The kids, I guessed, were finished—splashing noises came from their bathroom, along with the usual shrieks and yells. Boys are noisy creatures in the morning.

Bridget gestured me toward a plate that waited by the stove, stacked with pancakes. She was on the phone, her face creased with worry. I found the syrup and joined Emery at the table. The pancakes were blissfully good, better by far than the ones at Jim’s Cafe on University, where I sometimes treated myself to a hot breakfast if I’d made a good sale.

“What did the doctor say?” Bridget stretched the phone cord to get me a juice glass, pointing at the pitcher on the table. I made a mental note to scrounge up some oranges for her, from the trees no one bothers to pick around town. I know where they all are.

“You should see a doctor, Claudia.” The baby squirmed on Bridget’s chest, and she tapped Emery, who began unzipping and snapping until he could extricate Moira. He felt her bottom and carried her out of the kitchen. Bridget poured herself a cup of tea and one for me, still holding the phone between her ear and shoulder.

“Epsom salts are what we used to use, but if it’s more than a sprain, the sooner it’s taken care of, the better. How are you getting around?”

I ate steadily through my pancakes, idly listening to the one-sided conversation. It sounded like Claudia Kaplan, another one of Bridget’s circle of writer friends. I’d met Claudia a few times. She was a tall, imposing woman who wrote well-researched biographies of important, though sometimes obscure, women.

“Well, get someone to help you with the roses. You can’t take risks like that—you might fall again and really hurt yourself.” Bridget was prone to mother everyone when they needed it, and Claudia was evidently no exception. After a final admonition, she hung up the phone and joined me at the table.

“She is so stubborn!”

“Claudia?” I poured a little more tea in my cup, and hotted up Bridget’s. “What happened?”

“She tripped over a flower pot while she was carrying a bag of compost and sprained her ankle—or worse. That was yesterday, and it still hurts a lot. I’d better take her my medical book so she can see what to do, since she won’t go to a doctor.”

“I’ll take it,” I volunteered, pushing away my chair. “I’m going to do these dishes first—”

“You don’t need to—”

“I’m going to,” I interrupted. “And although I greatly appreciate your being so nice, Biddy, I can’t come back here.”

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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