H Is For Homicide Page 13

I turned the card over, holding it up to the light. ’’Looks like a get-well card, actually. Shoot. Now what am I supposed to do?’’

’’Take 'em to her house,’’ she said.

’’I can't. This is the only address he gave. You don't happen to have her home address, do you?’’

’’Nah. I never been there myself,’’ the woman said. She turned to one of the other women. ’’Hey, Lupe. Where's Bibianna live?’’

The second woman shook her head, but a third piped up. ’’On Castano. I don't know the number, but it's this big brown house in front and her place in back. She's got this little bungalow. Real cute. Between Huerto and Arroyo.’’

The woman at the counter turned back to me. ’’You know the block she's talkin'about?’’

’’I'll find it,’’ I said. ’’Thanks. You've been a big help.’’

’’I'm Graciela. Tell the guy to look me up he gets tired of her. I got all the same equipment, just arranged different.’’

I smiled. ’’I'll do that.’’

The second address on Bibianna turned out to be a dank-looking brown cottage at the back of a dank brown house, located in a midtown neighborhood distinctly down at the heel. I spotted the house in passing, then circled the block and parked across the street. I sat and scanned the premises. The lot was long and narrow, sheltered by the overhanging branches of magnolia, juniper, and pine trees. There was not a shred of grass anywhere and what vegetation there was seemed in desperate need of a trim. A cracked concrete drive cut along the property to the right. In the larger house in front, someone had nailed sagging floral print bedsheets across the windows in lieu of drapes.

There were no cars in the drive. According to the claim form, her 1978 Mazda was still in the body shop, having the right side panel replaced (among other things). I waited twenty minutes, but there was no visible activity. I torqued myself around, reaching into the backseat for the locked briefcase where I keep assorted false ID's for occasions such as this. I pulled a set for ’’Hannah Moore,’’ neatly tucked into a plastic accordion file: California driver's license with my stats and a photo of me, Social Security, and credit cards for Visa and Chevron gasoline. ’’Hannah Moore’’ even had a library card since I wanted her to appear literate. I shoved my shoulder bag under the front seat and tucked the ID in my trouser pocket. I got out, locked my car, crossed the street, and made my way down the driveway.

The tall trees on the property shaded it to an unpleasant chill, and I found myself wishing I'd brought a windbreaker or a sweat shirt. The exterior of Bibianna's vintage cottage was a shaggy brown shingle, the perfect little snack for a swarm of hungry termites. I climbed two wide creaking wooden steps to a tiny porch piled with junk. A casement window on the right side had a length of red cotton hung across the glass. I tried to peek in, but I really couldn't see much. The interior seemed quiet and there were no lights visible. I knocked on the front door, taking advantage of the moment to survey my immediate surroundings. A metal mailbox was nailed to the siding near the front door. Seven addressed and stamped envelopes were loosely tucked in the catch rack, awaiting pickup by the mailman. So far no one had answered my knock. The cottage had an unoccupied air, and I fancied I could already pick up the faintly musty scent generated by some dwellings with even the briefest of absences. I knocked again, waiting an interminable few minutes before concluding there was really no one home. Casually, I looked toward the big house, but there were no signs of life, no accusing faces peering out the windows at me. I reached over and let my fingers tippy-toe through the envelopes. When no alarms went off, I picked up the whole batch and sorted through them at my leisure. Four were bills. She was paying telephone, gas, electricity, and a department store. There were two number ten envelopes, one addressed to Aetna Insurance and one to Allstate, both with ’’Lola Flores’’ listed on the return address. Oh, gee, wonder what that could be, I thought. Cheaters never quit. It looked like the scam extended beyond the claim against California Fidelity. The seventh piece of mail was a personal letter addressed to someone in Los Angeles. I plucked it out of the stack, folded it, slipped it down the waistband of my trousers and into my panties. Shame on me. That's a federal crime - the stealing part, not the underpants. I returned the rest of the letters to the catch rack. Suppressing the impulse to run, I sauntered off the porch, ambled up the drive, and crossed the street to my waiting car.

I opened the car door on the passenger side, tossed the clipboard on the front seat, barely missing the bouquet, and locked up again. I could see a minimarket at the corner of Huerto and Arroyo, about ten houses down on the right. I headed in that direction in hope of finding a telephone. The market was a tiny mom-and-pop operation, the front windows papered over with hand-lettered advertisements for beer, cigarettes, and dog food. The interior was dimly lighted and there was sawdust on the uneven wooden floor that looked like it had been there since the place was built. The shelves were a jumble of canned goods in no particular order that I could discern. Free-standing shelves formed two narrow aisles crowded with everything from Pampers to Jell-O to lawn care products. Near the front, there was a refrigerated soft drink case and an ancient crypt-style freezer filled with frozen vegetables, fruit juices, and ice-cream bars. ’’Mom’’ was standing at the front counter in a white wraparound apron, a half-smoked cigarette in one hand. She was probably sixty-five with a stiffly sprayed flip of blond hair and a wide scab mustache where she'd had the wrinkles dermabraded off her upper lip. The skin on her face had been hiked up and tacked behind her ears, and her eyes had been stitched into an expression of permanent amazement.

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