H Is For Homicide Page 14


’’You have a pay telephone?’’

’’Back by the stockroom,’’ she said, pointing with her cigarette. A half-inch of ash dropped off and tumbled down the front of her apron.

I dropped four nickels into the coin slot and called Mary Bellflower, giving her Bibianna Diaz's hard-won address.

’’Thanks. This is great,’’ she said. ’’I've got a packet of forms I can ship right out. Are you coming back to the office?’’

’’Yeah, I'll be there in a bit. I thought I'd hang around for a while and see if Bibianna shows.’’

’’Well, stop in later and we'll figure out where we go from here.’’

’’Has Gordon Titus come back?’’

’’Nope. Not yet. Maybe it was a rout.’’

’’I doubt that,’’ I said. When I hung up the receiver, a nickel tumbled down into the return coin slot. My lucky day. On my left, there was a meat counter with a slanted glass front. A sign above it advertised the lunch special: chili beans, coleslaw, and a tri-tip sandwich for $2.39. The smell was divine. Tri-tip is apparently a regional phenomenon, some cut of beef nobody else has ever heard of. Periodically, a local journalist will try to trace the origin of the term. The accompanying article will show a moo-cow in profile with all the steaks drawn in. Tri-tip is on the near end, opposite the heinie bumper. It's usually barbecued, sliced, and served with homemade salsa on a bun or wrapped in a tortilla with a sprig of cilantro.

’’Pop’’ emerged from the walk-in freezer. A breath of winter wafted out. He was a big man in his sixties, with a benign face and mild eyes. ’’What can I get you?’’

’’How about the tri-tip to go.’’

He winked at me, smiling slightly, and prepared it without a word.

Sandwich in hand, I grabbed a Diet Pepsi from the cooler and paid at the front register. I returned to my car, where I dined in style, being careful not to spill salsa down the front of my uniform. The flowers, getting limper by the minute, filled the VW's interior with the smells of a funeral home.

I kept an eye on Bibianna's driveway for two hours, perfecting my surveillance Zen. In many P.I. firms, surveillance work is charged off at a higher rate than any other service offered because it's such a yawn. There were no signs of activity, no visitors, no lights coming on. It occurred to me if I intended to watch the place for long, I'd better contact the beat officer and let him know what was going on. Also, it might be smart to borrow another vehicle and maybe cook up some reason to be loitering in the vicinity. The postman came by on foot and picked up the letters waiting in Bibianna's box, replacing them with a handful of mail. I would have given a lot to see who was writing to her, but I didn't want to press my luck. Where was the woman? If her back hurt so bad, how come she was out all day? Maybe she was at the chiropractor's getting all her vertebrae lined up or her head replaced. At three I started up the car and headed back toward town.

When I arrived at the California Fidelity offices, I gave the bouquet to Darcy at the front desk. She had the good taste not to mention my little run-in with Titus. Her gaze rested briefly on my uniform. ’’You join the air force?’’

’’I just like to dress like this.’’

’’Those shoes look like they'd be lethal in a kick-boxing contest,’’ she remarked. ’’If you're here for Mary, she's got some clients with her, but you can probably mosey on back.’’

Mary had been hired as a CF claims representative in May, when Jewel Cavaletto retired. She'd been assigned the desk Vera had occupied before her promotion to the glass-enclosed office up front. Mary was smart but inexperienced, a young twenty-four, with the kind of face just pretty enough to net her second runner-up in a regional beauty contest. I gave her credit for the fact that she had flagged the Diaz claim. She had a good eye and if she could hang in long enough, she'd be a real asset to the company. She'd been married for three months to a salesman for the local Nissan dealership and was taking an avid interest in Vera's wedding plans. One of Mary's own wedding invitations (gauzy pink background depicting daisies blowing in a field) had been framed in brass and propped up on her desk. Where Vera had always tucked the latest issue of Cosmopolitan magazine under the stacks of claim folders on her desk, Mary read Brides, whose influence apparently extended from the engagement through the first year of marriage. Mary had once appealed to me for my recipe for chicken divan until Vera set her straight. Now she tended to regard me with the pity of the newly married for those of us determined to stay single.

I chatted with Darcy for a few minutes more and then made my way back to Mary's work station, pausing to say ’’hi’’ to a couple of other claims adjusters en route. Word of my skirmish with Titus had apparently spread and I'd been accorded celebrity status, which I figured would last until I got fired, one day at best. Mary's clients, a man and a woman, were just leaving as I reached her cubicle. The woman was in her thirties with a shaggy mane of bleached hair, the styling faintly punk. Her eyes were lined with harsh black, her lashes clearly false. Her patterned black hose and the trashy sling-back pumps with spike heels seemed at odds with the severe cut of her business suit. She seemed far less aware of me than I was of her, barely glancing in my direction as she passed by in the narrow aisle between cubicles. Her companion followed at a leisurely pace, an attitude of arrogance displayed in the very way he walked. He had his hands in his pockets as if he had all day, but I could have sworn he was keeping a tight rein on himself. His dark hair was combed away from his face. He had thick brows above big, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and a mustache cut so that it seemed to trail down around his mouth. He was well over six feet tall, the heft of his broad shoulders exaggerated by the padding in his plaid sport coat. He looked like the bad guy's ominous sidekick in a prime-time television show. As he came abreast of me, he tried to sidestep but bumped me in the process. He caught my arm apologetically and murmured a ’’Hey, sorry’’ as he headed on down the corridor. I caught a whiff of the hair tonic he was using to subdue the wave in his dark pompadour. I found myself staring after them as I moved into Mary's cubicle.


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