Authors: Lora Roberts
Emery came in, carrying Moira, and shot me a glance that I chose to interpret as full of relief.
Bridget protested. “Liz, you need a place to
stay, and it might as well be here. You could put your sleeping bag in the living room, if you wanted—”
“No.” I gathered up the rest of the plates and forced a smile at her. "Thanks so much, Biddy. I really appreciate your friendship. This is something I should work out with the police. It doesn’t do you or your family any good for me to hang around, and I’ve got other places to go.”
She argued with me the whole time I washed the dishes, without changing my mind. Emery finally told her to let me handle it my own way. He clapped me on the shoulder and went to herd the children into the car for school.
Bridget gave me the medical book and reluctantly let me leave, since the bus was blocking Emery’s car. It was more than the pancakes that made me feel warm when I backed out and drove away.
been to Claudia Kaplan’s house once before. It was in the section of Palo Alto called Professorville, built mostly around the turn of the century when Stanford was hiring faculty from East Coast universities. The new arrivals erected rambling brown-shingle homes resembling those they’d left in the East, and filled them with children. Now those houses cost fortunes.
Even Claudia’s would have gone for a pretty penny, though the paint was flaking off its windowsills, and the shingles on the roof were ruffled like a dog’s fur stroked the wrong way. There was a moon gate beside the house, overgrown with ivy, and tall somber yews guarding the front steps.
I rang the bell, but no one answered. In fact, I couldn’t even hear the bell inside—it was probably broken. Finally, clutching Bridget’s medical book, I pushed open the moon gate and went down the overgrown path that led to the backyard.
A figure was visible in the greenhouse at the rear. Between the back steps and the greenhouse door was a big garden, crammed full of stuff. I like gardens, and this one was intriguing. There were roses of every habit, climbing into trees, lifting rampant branches. Huge salvias towered over asters and chrysanthemums. Even the pot herbs were overgrown. I wondered what kind of fertilizer she used.
Knocking on the open door of the greenhouse, I cleared my throat. “Mrs. Kaplan?”
She turned, her royal purple housecoat swirling. Claudia Kaplan had an imposing shape, hair the color and texture of iron, and the sharp, cold stare of a strict fourth-grade teacher. After a moment of scrutiny, she recognized me.
“Oh, yes. Liz Sullivan. What can I do for you?” She shuffled forward slowly, leaning on a cane. She wore bedroom slippers, and one ankle was swathed in an elastic bandage.
“Bridget wanted you to have this.” I handed over the medical book. Claudia took it, holding it at arm’s length.
“Nice of Biddy,” she said dismissively, “but I know what’s the matter. It’s just a sprain.” She winced a little, nonetheless, when she headed for the greenhouse door. “Can I offer you a cup of coffee or something?”
I remembered hearing comments about Claudia’s coffee. “No thanks. I’ve got to be going.” Following in her slow wake, I noticed the cuttings that rooted on shelves and tables, the labeled rose hips scattered about. “Are you hybridizing here?”
She looked over her shoulder, narrowing those gimlet eyes at me, and ran smack into the compost bin, banging it with her sore foot. I grabbed her arm before she toppled over. Together we lurched to the wooden bench outside the greenhouse.
“Thank you.” Her mouth was folded small with pain. She took a few deep breaths.
“Maybe you should see a doctor.” The medical book had slid from her hand, and I picked it up, leafing through it until I found the section on sprains. “It says here that if it’s still swollen forty-eight hours after injury, see physician.”
“Of course it says that,” Claudia muttered. “It was written by doctors, wasn’t it? I’ll soak it for a while, and it’ll be fine.”
“Says here to use ice.” I showed her the page in the book.
Her lips tightened. “Ice, warm water—I’ll use them both.” She looked around the garden and sighed. “As a matter of fact, I am trying to cross some roses, and this is the time to break up the hips and germinate the seeds.” She looked at me consideringly. “I remember Bridget saying that you baby-sat and such. Do you do garden work, too?”
“I garden, yes, mostly for food.” My community garden plot would have fit into her backyard ten or fifteen times and left room for a tennis court. There was a motley collection of outbuildings beyond the greenhouse. She must have had the biggest lot in the neighborhood.
“Would you like to help me for a few days?” Claudia sounded a little hesitant. I guessed that she didn’t often ask for help of any kind. “I’d pay you, of course. And it’s just till I get back on my feet.”
“That’s nice of you, Mrs. Kaplan—”
“Claudia. But I don’t know if I’ll have time. I’m kind of involved right now in a murder investigation.”
“Murder!” She swung around on the bench, aiming that fourth-grade-teacher look at me again. “Tell me,” she commanded, “all about it.”
I hesitated for a minute. Normally, I am not the kind of person who confides. But since I’d already told Bridget about the investigation and what the police were doing, there didn’t seem to be any reason not to tell Claudia, too. It made a long story, while the sun poked through the rose vines and tree branches and finally freed itself to shine directly into our eyes.
The police interrogators had nothing on Claudia. She asked questions, and I answered them, compelled by the very enthusiasm of her inquiry. At last she was quiet, her hands folded on top of her cane and her chin resting on her hands.
I let my fingers trail idly through the asters that crowded beside the bench, their fringed blue petals and golden centers making a heap of brightness. Claudia’s interest in the story had been different from Bridget’s. Bridget had been distressed for me, her friend; Claudia, I could see, regarded it in an intellectual light.
“You should stay here,” she said at last, briskly. “Biddy was perfectly right, as usual; I do need someone to help me while my ankle is bad. I’ll pay you for the time you put into the garden—just a few hours a day will be enough. I’ll trade you room and board in return for you shopping and cooking—I don’t cook well under the best of circumstances. And you’ll have to tell me everything, mind you.”
“I have,” I began, bewildered by this sudden settling of my affairs.
“I mean, all the new stuff, as it happens. That Detective Drake has the brain of a codfish. Anyone can see you’re not guilty. He just needs a suspect, so he fastens on you.” She smiled at me with true warmth. “Actually, I’ve been a suspect of his in the past. It will be a pleasure to hand him the solution to his little problem long before he can come up with it.”
Vagabonds have an instinct for traps. I didn’t believe Claudia meant to trap me, but staying with her, shopping, going to bed in her house—I had lived a hunter-gatherer existence too long for that.
“I can’t impose on you so much,” I said, standing up. She struggled to rise, and I lent her a hand.
“It would be no imposition,” she said, upright again. “I really need the help.”
She didn’t look too good, leaning on her cane like some tottery grande dame. But she was sharp. She saw my hesitation and zoomed in on it.
“Of course, if you won’t help me, I might be able to find some teenager to come in.” She sniffed. “I couldn’t trust them in the garden, though. This year I’m hoping for a really spectacular result from crossing Oklahoma with Sheer Bliss.”
I had once worked at a commercial nursery. I had even had a small rose garden, before the necessity for taking up the vagabond life came along. Oklahoma was my favorite hybrid tea—its dark beauty and fabulous scent were the epitome of rose-ness.
Through the greenhouse’s open door, I could see the workbench scattered with fascinating tools. But I still argued with myself. Only a fool would fiddle with plants while murder charges swirled round her head.
But then, I’ve never claimed any particular degree of sagacity.
“I want to stay with my bus,” I said to Claudia, finally. “But I’ll park it back here by your garage. I can get the meals and help in the garden for a couple of hours in the mornings. I have commitments for the rest of the time. And the police will want to know I’m staying here; they may hang around a lot and bother you.”
Claudia, her face triumphant, waved the police away with a majestic hand. “They won’t bother
she said, and I could believe it. “The garage is rather dilapidated but you won’t mind that. And you can have the bathroom off the kitchen for yourself, if you’d like.” She mentioned the money she would pay, and I told her it was too much. We argued about it all the way down the path to her back door. I didn’t win. Not many do, I fancy, when they come up against Claudia.
Flushed with victory, she rested for a minute before climbing the back steps. “You should sleep in the house,” she said, returning to the attack. “More comfortable for you, and less dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” The conversation was totally out of my control now. Claudia began to struggle up the steps, and I boosted her a little from behind. “I’ve never had any problems.”
“Until now.” Claudia threw open the back door and invited me to enter with another one of those queenly sweeps of the hand. “Don’t you see? If someone has it in for you, you’re about as safe inside that van of yours as a sardine in a tin.”
I refused to sleep in the house. I began to wonder if I should even work for Claudia, and, as if she saw her prey vanishing, she stopped pressing me. She was out of breath, anyway, by the time she made it into an old overstuffed rocking chair that was parked, higgledy-piggledy, by the kitchen door. At her request, I put the kettle on for some coffee.
The coffee she intended to drink was an enormous jar of instant, on the counter beside the stove. There were some tea bags in an old cardboard box; I don’t care for Lipton, but in a pinch I’ll drink it. In the refrigerator were a pint of soured milk and half a head of exhausted iceberg lettuce. The cupboard held several little tubs of Cup o’ Noodles and one loaf of bread, half-eaten, with attractive blue mold spots blossoming on it.
This last Claudia regarded with interest. “I’ve always wondered what you have to do to bread mold to turn it into penicillin,” she remarked.
“Is this all the food you have?” I looked deeper into the cupboard. There were a few crackers, some vintage Worcestershire sauce, and a jar of home-canned peaches, the top ominously domed. I threw it away.
“Haven’t been to the market for a while,” Claudia said vaguely. “Usually I walk downtown for lunch.” She glared down at her swollen ankle.
I made a list, more hindered than helped by her suggestions, and left her with the ankle wrapped in ice and a stack of ancient diaries at her elbow that pertained to her research into the life of Juana Briones, her next biography subject. She gave me a blank check to the closest market and probably forgot about me as soon as I walked out the door.
It was still fairly early—shortly after ten. My whole routine was upset. Usually by this time I would be at the library, ready to work on research, or parked near Rinconada Park, typing up a manuscript to send out. Now, in my new role as gardener/cook/handyperson/murder suspect, I was shopping. Life is strange.
Outside the Whole Foods was a pack of newspaper machines. I never buy newspapers, but I like to scan the headlines through the machines’ glass doors. The
had it on the front page, above the fold. I could see a tantalizing bit of headline—"Homeless Man in Suspicious Death”—and the lead: “Gordon Murphy, an often-seen character on downtown Palo Alto streets, was found dead early this morning by an unidentified vagrant. Murphy, 42, was—"
If I wanted to read the rest, I would have to buy the paper. I didn’t want to read it, to
find myself referred to as a vagrant. Vagabond is a much more attractive word choice.
It was funny to think of Pigpen as Gordon Murphy. The name dignified him, took away the macabre overtones of his death, rendered it tragedy instead of melodrama. Gordon Murphy should have had a future, a family, a purpose. Pigpen Murphy didn’t even have the next bottle anymore.
I went on into the Whole Foods, trying to tamp down the apprehension that had come back in full force after seeing the newspaper. It was all real, far too real, and I was in far too deep for a person who likes to stay out of things.
The market was a good distraction, anyway. Whole Foods is like a temple to Health, with side altars to Wealth and Weirdness. I don’t usually shop there—or anywhere, having discovered how to
eat with a minimum amount of spending. Generally, when I want novelty in my diet, I go to Common Ground, the seed place, and pick up something for the garden. It teaches patience.
The grocery carts were as wide as Rolls-Royces. I tooled carefully through the aisles, wondering how anyone chose which vitamins to take, which teas to use. There was an herbal cure for every disease hypochondria could conjure. They had every variety of tofu known to humanity. Strangely enough, there was a great meat counter in the back, giving the place a kind of rich, high-toned schizophrenia. The Halloween pumpkins were organic; the candy goblins and witches were made from some kind of ersatz chocolate. The bakery displayed both knobby, whole-grain health breads and brownies so sinful as to defy description.
I knew, because I sampled everything out of little baskets set at the counters. I collected some good tea, fruits that were unavailable by scrounging, vegetables that were out of season in my plot. There was a nice-looking salmon staring me in the eye, so I got some of that, too. Drunken with the power of that blank check, I reeled through the store, adding bags of granola and half-gallons of milk and even ice cream to my cart.
“Why, Liz.” It was Delores Mitchell, wearing a suit of nubby, expensive fabric, with one of the inevitable bowed silk blouses peeking out the front. Her skirt was uncreased, her alligator pumps immaculate. It didn’t take her quick glance at my motley garb to make me feel immediately dowdy and unclean. “I’d never expect to run into you here,” she trilled, holding her shopping basket as if she was gathering flowers. Instead of blossoms, it held a carton of yogurt, a little plastic tub of deli stuff, a muffin, and a bottle of imported mineral water.