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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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“You might not have a choice if you run and they find you,” Claudia said pragmatically. “But if you stick it out, the dangers are that the police will pin the crime on you anyway, and/or that your ex-husband—is he an ex-husband?”

I nodded. My first act in the halfway house had been to research ways to divorce Tony without his cooperation. I got my probation transferred to
Las Vegas and worked as a temp until the divorce went through.

“So if he finds out you’re in Palo Alto, he’s still got to track you down,” Claudia went on. "That could be a lot easier if you’re on the street than if you’re here. Does he know your car?”

“I don’t think so.” I looked around the kitchen again. Claudia presented her four walls as safety, and I wanted to see them that way. But to me the house was a large, well baited trap.

“So if you leave, you might avoid him. But he might not even know to be looking for you. Or he might have given up a while ago. How long has it been since—”

“I’ve been out for over five years.” I fiddled restlessly with the salt and pepper shakers. “Two years later he found me in San Diego. I was lucky then, too—got away before he saw me.”

I’d been working at a wholesale nursery in La Jolla. One day I was washing up in the rest room when I heard Tony’s voice in the office beyond, asking about me. The owner’s wife was at the counter, and she was too sharp an old bird to hand out employees’ phone numbers or addresses. I held the doorknob so tightly I can still feel its imprint in my palm, while I listened to him wheedle her, feed her a line about parted lovers, a silly quarrel. When he finally left, I drove the bus back to my apartment, casing the street carefully before I climbed the back stairs. I took only the essentials—typewriter, clothes, what food there was, my camping gear. I let the nursery and my landlady know I was leaving, gave a regretful look at the little rose garden I’d cultivated in the courtyard, and drove away. I hadn’t had a house address since then, but still I never felt safe.

Claudia took another view of it. “He’s doubtless got some other poor woman to beat up now,” she pointed out. “He won’t be in the picture.”

“There’s another scenario,” I said, gulping my tea despite its scalding heat.

Claudia looked at me, her eyebrows raised.

“He’s already in the picture.” I set my cup down, carefully, proud that my hand didn’t shake. “Maybe Tony’s decided I need to be punished some more, and this whole thing is his way of achieving that."

 

Chapter 13

 

My
impulse was to flee, but in this case I had to recognize the force of Claudia’s arguments. However, I did hide the bus. Claudia’s garage was at right angles to her driveway, which extended a little way past the sagging garage doors to make extra parking space. There were six weedy feet between the garage and the old board fence that marked the rear of the property. I drove the bus back in there, where it was concealed from the street. If Tony had traced me, he knew what my transportation looked like. So I wouldn’t drive it for a while.

I’d planned to go to
the library and then swim, as usual. It took me a while to fix the tires on Claudia’s bike, lube the chain, and tighten the brake cables. By then I knew the lap swimming time was nearly over, so I headed directly for the pool, after telling Claudia where I was going. If she heard me, it was a miracle. She was deep in her papers, a big mug of cold coffee clutched in one hand.

It wasn’t very far to the pool. I handed my ticket to the guy who sits in the little office there, and headed for the women’s locker room.

“Ms. Sullivan! Liz!”

I’m not used to being called by mellow male voices. I turned, to see Ted Ramsey bearing down on me. He was fully clothed, but his hair was wet. He carried a gym bag. It dripped a little.

“I thought you looked familiar from somewhere.” He smiled at me, revealing white, even teeth. “Must have seen you around the pool.”

“I swim often.” I didn’t reveal that I had noticed him at the pool. His ego, from all appearances, needed no stroking.

“So you’re a friend of Vivien’s. Isn’t she the sweetest person?” His face clouded. “I don’t like to think of old people living alone like that. My grandmother broke her hip and it was several hours before anyone found her. So painful.”

“Vivien likes living alone.” I looked at him coolly. “And she has tenants in the cottage to help her out.”

“It’s vacant now, though, did you know?” I had known, actually—Vivien had asked me if I was interested in renting it. If it hadn’t been for the money, and worry about Tony finding me, I would have liked nothing better.

“She’ll find someone great. She always does.”

He held out a hand to stop me when I moved away. “Tell me—have you known her long? I just wondered—” He paused, and then continued, flashing those teeth at me once more. “I am very interested in acquiring that property. Mrs. Houseman, one of Mrs. Greely’s neighbors, has given me an option on her property, and is anxious to have it all settled so she can move into the retirement home she’s chosen. Don’t you feel it really would be best for Mrs. Greely, too?” He shrugged slightly. “You know how these old ladies get. Don’t know when they should give it up. Perhaps we could meet for dinner one night and I could explain it to you.”

At least he didn’t offer to make it worth my while. I stared back at him. “I wouldn’t presume to advise Vivien on her living arrangements. If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Ramsey. I don’t have too much time for my swim.”

“Of course.” He conceded defeat gracefully, I had to give him that. His warm gaze traveled over me as if he saw something delightful. “I’m sure we’ll meet again, Liz.”

At least the incident had value in distracting me from the pile of troubles I was dragging around. Ramsey reeked of class. But I would also back Vivien every time. Beneath that sweetness was a solid, stubborn core. She liked her house. She didn’t want to move. Ergo, Ramsey could sweet-talk her all be wanted, and he would probably get nowhere.

After my twenty laps I stopped at the library to see if they’d gotten the interlibrary loan I’d requested, microfilm of the old
Mayfield Republican
for the late 1800s. It wasn’t in yet.

When I got back to Claudia’s I sat in my bus typing up the research I’d already done until I’d used up all the words I could find. The writing seemed leaden and unappealing, but at least I was back in my familiar surroundings, even if the parking spot didn’t have the scenic value I usually liked in my decor. One advantage of driving your house around is that you can change the view whenever you like. I’d had some spectacular living paintings on my wall—the ocean from Pillar Point, towering redwoods at Big Basin or Butano, the whitewashed buildings of Fort Mason. When I had the gas money, I could check out some great stuff. That’s what I liked about the Bay Area. If I had to leave, it would be sad.

When the words were gone, there was no use chasing the bus, thinking about how I could get the broken window replaced without driving it anywhere. Claudia was still deep in her work when I went into the kitchen for a drink of water. I envied her that concentration. I wouldn’t interrupt her to
do those hybridization experiments she wanted to try, but there was plenty of other work.

I raked and weeded, clipping the most rampant ivy and pruning away the wisteria that impeded passage from the back to
the front. I was shaping the clematis that overgrew the moon gate when I saw Alonso shambling down the street.

It took me a moment to
figure out why the sight of him was so unnerving. And then I realized that, like Pigpen just before his death, Alonso wore fresh Goodwill-style clothes, with no patina of ground-in dirt.

 He went up the front walk of one house, a big sack in his hand, and reemerged almost immediately, repeating the action at the next house. Finally I realized that he was collecting the sample packets of breakfast cereal some other entrepreneur had hung on doorknobs up and down the street.

When he came abreast of Claudia’s, I spoke to him. “So you’ll eat well for a few days, hey, Alonso?” He jumped at the sound of my voice, closing his hands tightly over his bag. “Sully! I didn’t see you there.”

"This is a new scam, isn’t it? Stealing samples?”

Scowling, he backed away. “I’m just gettin’ rid of junk mail for these people.”

“You got dressed up for it, I see.”

He flushed, looking down at the shapeless plaid sport coat that flapped around his spare figure. “A guy needs some new clothes once in a while.”

“They look good, too,” I said. His hair was combed back from his face—you could see the furrows the comb’s teeth had plowed in the greasy locks.

“Thought you were in jail.” Alonso didn’t meet my eyes. “Didn’t they finger you for Pigpen’s check-out?”

“They haven’t so far.” I could see this didn’t reassure him. “Maybe there is justice in the justice system, hey?”

He thought this over. “Maybe,” he said, sounding doubtful. “You didn’t stiff him?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Alonso’s forehead corrugated with the effort of thinking. “But—if you didn’t do it, who did?”

"That’s what we’re all wondering right now, Alonso.” I looked at him closely. “Do you know something more than you told the police?”

“No, no,” he said hastily. He was lying, and I thought about calling him on it, but the code of the street is no prying, no lectures. It’s anarchy—everyone governs his own conscience.

“You should tell them anything you know. The guy who talked to me—Drake—he’s pretty much human.”

“He’s a cop, though, isn’t he?” Alonso was already turning away. “I gotta go. See you, Sully.”

Clutching his bag of cereal samples, he made off down the street, the coat flapping out behind him. I’d never seen him move in such a hurry.

I fixed dinner for Claudia, though I couldn’t summon an appetite. She didn’t bring her work to the table, but I sensed this was a big concession on her part. We talked about our projects and I complimented her on her ability to tune out distraction.

“It really comes from living alone,” she said, taking another serving of salmon. “After Alfred died, I started losing myself in work to keep the pain at bay.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter how long it is, you still miss them. These are his slippers, you know.” She lifted one foot, lumpy with elastic bandage. “I never got around to getting rid of his stuff, and now I find myself raiding his closet. Another way to feel close to him still.”

“How long has it been?” I pushed a few green beans around on my plate.

“Since he died?” She thought for a moment. “Close to ten years. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. Guess I am, really. But I’ve very much enjoyed your companionship, Liz. Better than a husband in many ways.” She grinned mischievously. “You don’t need help finding things all the time, for instance.”

“It is nice to have someone to talk over projects with.” I told her a little about my research, and she had some contributions to make. It was a novel dining experience for me, soothing and very pleasant, but strange, to share conversation and food.

After dinner Claudia went back to her diaries and notebooks. I read for a while in her living room—
The White Goddess,
which I’ve started many times and keep on hand to lull me into sleep. It didn’t work this time. The living room was big, full of shabby furniture and dust, a totally foreign environment to me. I felt like a wild fox in a doghouse.

Finally I poked my head into Claudia’s study to ask if she needed help getting to bed.

She didn’t relish the interruption, and shook her head impatiently. “I can manage,” she said, waving away the stairs that led to the second floor. “Going up is easier than coming down.”

“I’ll come in early tomorrow and see how you’re doing, then.” I wasn’t sure exactly what my role of nurse/companion entailed. Tea and toast on a tray in the morning? Help in the bathroom? Claudia wasn’t walking any better, although she’d learned to manage the cane.

“Fine, fine.” It was obvious she hadn’t listened to me. Her attention was fixed greedily on the heap of crumbling, ancient papers she’d collected on her desk. “Good night, Liz."

I used the bathroom that had been designated as mine. It did seem luxurious to brush my teeth in a real sink, wash my face with warm water, pee without having to squat over the bucket. I put such traitorous thoughts away. Houses were nice for ordinary people, not vagabonds.

The wind had picked up, bringing coldness with it. For the first time in a long while, the night seemed hostile. I’m used to being out in it
,
sitting with the door of the bus open, watching the few stars that are visible in this urban wilderness. But now I was a hunted creature, finding trouble in every shadow, menace in every gust of wind. I stood for a moment in the middle of Claudia’s garden, letting the scent of the late roses calm me. It wasn’t long after nine; from the houses on either side came the faint sounds of children yelling, music playing. I had always felt so safe in Palo Alto before.

Just as I got to the driveway, a car turned in, pinning me in its headlights. I was dazzled, and when the lights went out, I couldn’t see. The footsteps coming toward me made hollow, deliberate sounds on the gravel.

“Waiting for me?” It was Drake. I pulled myself together and hoped my voice didn’t reveal that moment of panic.

“I should have known you’d be checking up, I suppose."

He stopped a few feet away. “That’s my job.”

The back porch light came on, and Claudia opened the door. “You all right. Liz?” She sounded anxious.

“I’m fine.” I was touched that she’d pulled herself away from her research. “It’s the police, Claudia. I warned you they’d be hanging around.”

She didn’t try the steps down from the porch. “Is it that Detective Drake?”

Drake made a face, but when he answered, his voice was very official. “That’s right, Mrs. Kaplan. Your guest is of interest to the police, you know.”

Claudia’s sniff was audible even where I stood. “If the truth were of interest to the police, it would be unnecessary for you to pester Liz.”

Drake waited for a minute to see if she would go back inside, but she didn’t. “I’m escorting Ms. Sullivan to her bus,” he called finally. “Just want to make sure everything’s in order.”

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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