H Is For Homicide Page 12
According to the account she'd given to the officer at the scene, Bibianna had been proceeding south on Valdesto at 30 MPH when she'd been forced to slam on her brakes, swerving to avoid a cat that streaked across her path. Her car had skidded sideways and she'd plowed into a parked car. There were no witnesses, of course. Paramedics called to the scene had administered first aid for superficial contusions and abrasions and then transported her to St. Terry's emergency room for X-ray examination when she complained of neck and back pain. I wondered if the hospital billing department had a good address for her. There was probably a second insurance company, representing the owner of the vehicle she'd hit, and it was always possible that the other claims adjuster had something in his files. Bibianna lived somewhere and I was determined to get a line on her. I went back to the office and made the requisite phone calls, which netted me nothing. I gave Mary Bellflower a quick call next door and told her I was still working on it.
At two-fifteen, aggravated, I set the matter aside and spent the rest of the day on routine paperwork. I knew I could ill afford to get obsessed with Bibianna Diaz. Now that I had Gordon Titus breathing down my neck, I was going to have to cover some ground. I plowed on, but even while I was concentrating on other cases, finishing off the paperwork, I could feel the pull. Something was bothering me. It's not like passing a file along to another adjuster is any big deal, but Parnell was dead and that seemed to make all the difference.
THE NEXT MORNING, I showered and donned my generic uniform. I had this outfit done up for me years ago by an ex-con who learned to sew working the big machines in some federal penitentiary. The slacks were blue gray and unflattering, with a pale stripe along the seam. The matching pale blue shirt had a circle of Velcro sewn on the sleeve, which usually sported a patch that read ’’Southern California Services.’’ The shoes, left over from my days on the police force, were black and made my feet look like they'd be hard to lift. Once I added a clipboard and a self-important key ring, I could pass myself off as just about anything. Usually, I pretend I'm reading a water meter or checking for gas leaks, any officious task that necessitates crawling through somebody's bushes and tampering with their security systems. Today, I slapped on an FTD patch and headed for the nearest florist, where I laid out thirty-six dollars for a massive bouquet. I bought a syrupy get-well card, scribbled an illegible name, and put in a quick call to the dry cleaning establishment where Bibianna worked. A woman answered this time.
’’Oh, hi,’’ said I. ’’May I speak to the owner, please?’’
’’This'the plant. He just left on his way over to the other place,’’ she said. ’’You want that number?’’
She recited the number to me carefully and I recited it back as if I were writing it down. What did she know? She couldn't see what I was doing anyway.
’’Thanks,’’ I said. I hung up and hopped in my car, flowers on the seat beside me. I drove over to the plant. There was a nice green length of curb out in front, fifteen minutes of free parking. I locked the car and went in. I stood at the counter briefly, waiting for service. The place smelled of soap products, damp cotton, chemicals, and steam. The area behind the counter was a forest of clothing in clear plastic bags. On my left, an elaborate electronic tram moved hanging garments in a tortuous track that snaked up and around, returning to the point of origin so that any garment on board could be delivered to the station when the proper number was punched in.
To the right, a maze of overhead pipes supported garments in the process of being pressed. There were ten women within my visual range, most of them Hispanic, working machines whose function one could only guess. A radio had been tuned to a Spanish-language station that was blasting out an up-tempo cut from a Linda Ronstadt album. Two of the women sang as they worked, moving men's shirts expertly across the machines in front of them. With the syncopated rhythm of the irons, the shirt machines, the clouds of billowing steam, the place looked like the perfect setting for a musical number.
One of the two singing women finally noticed me. She left her machine and came over to the counter where I was waiting. She was short and compact, with a round face, eyes the color of chocolate M amp;M's, and coarse dark hair pulled into a snood. The loose gold satin blouse she wore was sprinkled with sequins. She glanced at the bouquet. ’’Those for me?’’
I checked the attached florist's card. ’’Are you Bibianna Diaz?’’
’’Nah. She's off this week.’’
’’She won't be in at all?’’
The woman shook her head. ’’She hurt her back in this accident... mmm, about two months ago, and it's still botherin'her. The pain flares up, she says, real bad. She can't hardly walk. Boss told her, no way, don't come in. He don't want no kind of lawsuit. She got a boyfriend?’’