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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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“I eat, too,” I muttered. Delores had an unfortunate effect on me, which I would like to be too well-integrated to experience. I longed for the lid to come off the yogurt carton and let the purple stuff inside trickle down her perfectly groomed front. Playground emotions, I know.

“Of course you—I didn’t mean to imply—” She looked flustered for a moment. I was a social challenge for Delores; she could cosset the old folks at the Senior Center and chitchat brightly with the down-and-outers at the Food Closet, where she also volunteered. There was no convenient niche for me. When I turned up at the swimming pool or Senior Center, or at an expensive and trendy grocery store, she had to readjust her ideas about people who live in cars as opposed to houses. To give her credit, she didn’t just brush me off.

“I didn’t see you at the pool this morning.” She smiled gaily, as if we had a regular rendezvous, instead of an occasional encounter. “My eyes positively ache from that chlorine.”

“They are a little red,” I said solicitously. They weren’t, of course. Delores had some of those excellent goggles. Her eyeballs stayed gloriously white when she swam, unlike mine.

“Are they?” She peered at her reflection in the shiny glass door of the ice-cream cooler. “Oh dear. I’m meeting someone for lunch, and I don’t want to look like I stayed up all night.” She patted at her hair. “Well, Ted will understand. He swims, too.” I felt again that unsettling mixture of guilt for having her on, and sneaking satisfaction that she was so easy to gull. “How is your class going?” She smiled kindly at me, working from the script that all those popular people have, the one that tells them to ask about the interests of others. “I’ve got more of those old dears than ever in my financial planning seminar.”

“I’m doing fine.” Delores looked understanding; she must have noticed that my attendance was down from the first quarter I took the writing workshop. It was all right with me; the ones who stuck with me were really interested in working, and the dilettantes had dropped out. The bad angel in my left brain drove me to add, “It’s you I worry about. Isn’t Federated Savings being investigated by the IRS?”

Delores looked horrified. “Oh, no! It’s not true at all!” She grabbed my arm. “Where did you hear that?”

“I think it was on the radio or something.” She was so worried by the rumor that my good, right-brain angel wanted me to confess I’d made it up, but that would have involved tedious and uncomfortable explanations. I wanted to get back to Claudia’s, have lunch and a cup of tea, maybe sample that ice cream before starting to work.

“Federated is one of the healthiest S&L’s in the business,” Delores assured me earnestly.

“If you say so.” I made a private resolve not to have any more of these conversations with Delores, not to pull her credulous leg again. “Got to get this ice cream home.”

Delores moved in the opposite direction, but I caught her questioning glance back at me as I rounded the aisle. No doubt she’d remembered that I didn’t have a home.

The groceries in my cart cost more than I spent in a month for food. The bill seemed extravagant, and yet it wasn’t out of the range Claudia had set. Perhaps, if I stayed at her place more than a few days, I would treat her to cuisine à la vagabond, where the flavor of the food is intensified by the effort it takes to collect it.

I was planning to call the police department, to tell Drake or Morales where they could find me for the next few days. That little task was not necessary, though. Drake was leaning against my bus when I came out of the store. His manner was idle, even proprietary. Not, this morning, threatening.

“Ms. Sullivan.” He greeted me matter-of-factly, watching while I stowed the grocery bags away. “Did you rob a bank?”

“Just working for a living,” I said, facing him. Delores Mitchell climbed into her BMW three cars down. She watched curiously, making a big production out of finding her sunglasses.

“Are you going to stay at Biddy’s, or are you going to the Carver Arms?” Drake sounded relaxed, but his smile was tight.

“Neither.” I fished a notebook out of my bag and scribbled Claudia’s address on it. “I’m parking here, around the back. There’s a phone, too, if you need to get in touch with me. Claudia Kaplan.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Mrs. Kaplan is a friend of yours?”

“Not exactly.” From his expression, he’d tangled with Claudia a time or two. “She needs help in her garden, and in
the house. With luck, you’ll have cleared up this whole mess before I’m finished there.”

“With luck, you won’t have a new address at the county’s expense,” he said mildly.

I didn’t like to think about that. “Have you found out anything more?” I kept my notebook open, just in case he decided to shake some information loose. Delores Mitchell drove slowly past us and out of the parking lot, so intent on my conversation with Drake she almost ran over a grocery cart.

“When I find out something you need to know, I’ll tell you,” Drake said, smiling a little to take the sting out of his words. “But I did wonder if you could help me. We’re looking for a guy who was a drinking buddy of Murphy’s—Alonso Beaudray. Do you know where he can be found?”

“Alonso.” I thought about it for a minute, tucking my notebook back in my bag. “I told you already, they were part of the underpass gang. Maybe they had some other place, too.” It would be all over the street soon that I was being followed and questioned. "They might know. I didn’t hang around with that group.”

“Who did you hang around with?” He made it sound like a casual inquiry.

“Nobody,” I smiled sweetly. “I’m a loner, Mr. Drake.”

“But you weren’t always, Ms. Sullivan. Or should I call you Mrs. Naylor?”

I thought I had prepared myself for it—the police’s discovery of my unsavory past. And yet the sound of that name made my heart stop and start again in slow, uneven jerks. Through the fog that seemed to veil my eyes, I could see Drake’s face, his smile changing to concern.

“It’s always best, when you run away,” he added lamely, into my frozen silence, “to do more than just use your maiden name. We traced you very easily.” He cleared his throat and added gruffly, “Guess I know now why you hate men.”

Words wouldn’t come out through the dryness of my throat. I swallowed and fought my face for control.

Drake watched me, his glasses winking in the sun. “We know what happened to you,” he added. “You must see that it makes you more interesting to us.”

“Did you—did you tell—” This time I managed to speak. It hurt.

“We didn’t interview your ex-husband.” There was a flash of uncertainty behind the glasses. “He won’t know where you are.”

“He’ll find out.” I rounded the front of the bus, Drake at my heels, and climbed into the driver’s seat. “He’s very good at that. He’ll find out.”

“Look, Ms. Sullivan—Liz. I’m sorry. But you didn’t come clean with us, and you should have. Then we wouldn’t have had to ferret around.” He shuffled his feet. “Listen, just let us know if there are problems, okay?”

“Sure.” I stared down at him bitterly from the driver’s seat. “I’ll call you right up on my two-way wristwatch. I have to go now."

He was still standing in the parking lot when I left. I drove back to Claudia’s as fast as I could, and I wasn’t worried about the ice cream.

 

Chapter 12

 

Claudia was still sitting at the kitchen table, but she had switched to the bucket of hot water with Epsom salts. She was deep in a pile of photocopies, her elbows on either side of the stack, her face bent territorially over it.

I set two bags of groceries down with a muttered hello, and went back for the third one. My hands had started shaking again as soon as I’d let go of the steering wheel. I felt numb, as if all my synapses were paralyzed.

“What’s the matter?” Claudia ceased to focus on her papers, and turned her sharp eyes on me. I avoided them as long as I could, but at last the cans and bottles were all put away, the bread stashed, the refrigerator stocked. I shut the freezer door and turned to look at her.

“Nothing.” I didn’t know yet what I’d tell her, how I’d get away. I needed time to think.

“Has there been another murder?”

“Not yet.” I had planned a fancy salad for our lunch, but now I set out bread and sandwich fixings and let it go at that.

Claudia made herself an immense tower of cheese, tomatoes, sprouts, avocado, and lettuce—everything I’d put out. I stuck my spoon into a carton of yogurt and pretended to swallow.

“Are you a vegetarian?” Claudia’s question broke the silence. “I notice there’s no meat here.”

“I bought salmon for dinner.” Fresh fish was no longer exciting. In fact, visualizing that dead eye, that slack jaw, I felt positively queasy about the salmon.

There was something wrong with my mind. It took ordinary things, like the yogurt I was trying to eat, and used them to remind me of hideous events in the past. Yogurt was a lot like the vanilla pudding Tony had shoved my face into, the time he said I hadn’t put enough sugar in it. Raw meat was what I’d seen the night he’d laid my arm open with the bread knife. He’d accused me of sneaking around with his best friend. My denial had just enraged him. The blood calmed him down some; there was quite a bit of blood.

I looked around at Claudia’s kitchen—the cracked linoleum, the ancient appliances. It reminded me of the kitchens in apartments we’d rented, the backdrop for Tony’s war against me, psychic damage escalating to physical violence over five long years.

But, of course, the bedroom can be a very violent place, too.

“Liz?” Claudia touched my arm. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I took a deep breath. “I won’t be able to stay and help you. I have to go now. Sorry about the roses—”

“The police have solved the murder?” Under her stern eye, I could not tell a lie. I shook my head.

“Then you’re behaving foolishly,” she went on, giving my arm a little shake before she let go. “Flight presupposes guilt, you know. Why are you so scared now? You weren’t before.”

It was strange that I would confide in Claudia, who had not an iota of Bridget’s reassuring sympathy. But as if her question was the off/on switch to my memory, I started talking. It poured out, to the point where the sound of my voice sickened me, and yet I couldn’t stop until I’d told it all.

Claudia listened without interrupting, without moving. I told her how I’d run away from college with Tony, who was so hated by my family that I’d never heard from them again. (Could I bear to admit to them how right they were?) How I’d kept us alive through a variety of jobs, while Tony went to one school after another, moving from town to town, from premed to prelaw to engineering to drafting to radio announcing school, never settling down to anything but drinking with his buddies after class and coming home afterward simmering with anger at the world, at the universe, at me—the personification of everything that held him down. I left him a couple of times, and he threatened me, frightened me, until I didn’t know where to
turn except back to
him. Always the promises, the sweet talk—and then the doubts and suspicions that led to
violence.

The last time, when he knocked me against the headboard, his eyes narrowed with that crazy glitter, I knew he would kill me. I got the nightstand drawer open before he could. I wanted him to die, wanted to die myself. I’m a lousy shot. I’ve never decided if that was bad or good luck.

I have a nightmare that comes again and again, about pulling that trigger, seeing him fall back as if the bullet had pushed him over, seeing that bright red delta grow and grow on his chest. In my dream there’s a long, silent time between him falling back and my hand going to the telephone.

Claudia leaned forward, the creak of her chair sounded loud in the room.

“So you didn’t kill him?” Her face was cold, dispassionate.

“No.”

She took a deep breath. “Too bad.”

I tried to smile. “Tony doesn’t see it that way.”

“Hmm.” Claudia had already abandoned the speculative for the concrete. “I wonder how the police traced you? What address does your driver’s license have?”

“An accommodation address in San Jose.” I had my official mail sent there, since it was a street address and not a box number. They sent it on to my P0 box in Palo Alto—for a nominal fee every year. It wouldn’t take a very substantial bribe to be worth more to them than I was. “Fingerprints, probably. I was sort of hoping they wouldn’t bother to check them.”

“Just like in books,” Claudia said. “They must have run you through some computer to see what came up.”

“It just goes to show that dishonesty should be total.” I got up to put away the food. “It’s a lesson I’ll take to heart next time around. New name, new background.”

“Why didn’t you do that this time?” Claudia sounded interested, as if my life was some PBS presentation—"How the Vagabonds Got That Way.”

I shrugged. “It sounds stupid, but I’d been selling freelance articles in prison under my maiden name. Once I got out, I didn’t want to lose momentum by starting over with a new moniker.”

Claudia watched me for a minute, doodling on a sheet of paper. “I don’t think you should leave,” she said, finally. She spoke calmly, as if my future was an exercise in logic and she was ready to present her side of it.

“Why?” I put the kettle on for some tea and sat down. Her detachment was contagious. Perhaps that’s a byproduct of shock. My decision to go or stay seemed no more weighty than the most commonplace trip to the market.

“If you leave,” Claudia pointed out, writing LEAVE
on her scratch paper, “the police will stop looking for Murphy’s real killer—unless someone else dies. Even then, they’d pin it on you.” She thought for a minute. “Unless you’re in jail by then. Maybe.”

“I’m not going to be locked up again.” I had spent enough time paying for the crime of shooting my husband before he killed me. It could have been worse—the minimum security facility wasn’t as bad as being in prison. Being there was better than being Tony’s punching bag. He’d shown up several times, according to the staff, protesting his forgiveness of me and vowing eternal love, but I didn’t have to see him. Some parts of paying my debt to society had been positive. But it was not an experience I wanted to
repeat.

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
5.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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