H Is For Homicide Page 16

’’Who knows? Let's just hope they were legitimate.’’

She put her hand on her chest like she was about to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. ’’Oh, Lord. What's that supposed to mean?’’

’’Well, you know how it is. You can hand out a business card that says anything. I've done it myself.’’

Mary seemed affronted, suddenly shifting from anxiety into action mode. ’’Give me that,’’ she said. She snatched the woman's business card and laid it on the desk with a snapping sound. I watched her pick up the phone and punch in the telephone number with its 213 area code. ’’I'm going to kill myself if she isn't who she said she was.’’ She listened for a moment and then her expression changed. She held up the receiver, which was emitting a sound like a garbage disposal grinding up a live duck.

’’Maybe you dialed it wrong,’’ I said helpfully.

’’God, I can't believe I'd fall for something so obvious, but it never occurred to me to question her identity. How could I be so dumb?’’

’’Well, you don't have to be so hard on yourself. After years in the business, I can still be conned. It's human nature to trust, especially if you're honest to begin with. Not that I'm that honest, but you know what I mean.’’

’’What do you think they were up to?’’

’’Beats me,’’ I said. ’’Obviously, they knew Bibianna and they were aware of her inclination to cheat. The real question is, how'd they get to us? There must be a hundred insurance agencies in Santa Teresa. Why CF?’’

’’This is terrible. I'm just sick. What could they want with her?’’ Mary's cheeks had turned a bright, wholesome pink.

’’Probably nothing pleasant or they would have played it straight.’’

’’What should we do?’’

’’I don't see what we can do until we know what's going on. Why don't you track down the current phone number for ICPI and ask if they're investigating her.’’ I held the note up. ’’In the meantime, I'll try to catch up with her and we'll fake it out from there.’’


I WENT HOME and stripped off the uniform. I transferred the fake ID from the pocket of my uniform pants to my blue jeans, which I pulled on with a navy turtleneck. I slipped into gym stocks and tenny bops and headed back to Bibianna's.

I hoped Mary Bellflower's naivete hadn't put Ms. Diaz at risk. There were still no cars in the drive and no sign of the couple I'd seen at the CF offices. Had they already looked up the address and hightailed it over here? They had maybe thirty minutes on me, so it was always possible that they were in the cottage right now or had been and gone. If they'd actually been quick enough to nick off her address. A few cars passed on the street, but no familiar faces peered out. For the second time that day, I left my car, locked, on the street and moved down Bibianna's driveway. It was now four thirty-five, and I could see lights on in the cottage. As I approached, I caught a tantalizing whiff of onions and garlic being sauteed in olive oil. I climbed the wide wooden steps. From inside, this time, I could hear the jaunty theme song of a television sitcom, probably a cable station doing reruns.

I knocked on the front door, which was opened moments later by a Hispanic woman of perhaps twenty-five. She was barefoot, dressed in a red satin teddy with a short red satin robe pulled over it and tied at the waist. She was slim - nay, petite - with flawless olive skin and big dark eyes in a heart-shaped face. She had two tortoiseshell hairpins clamped in her teeth as if I'd caught her in the midst of redoing her hair. Dark hair trailed halfway down her back like a shawl, a few silken strands spilling across her right shoulder. As I watched, she gathered the length of it and made a complicated knot, which she secured with the two hairpins. ’’Yes?’’

My true inclination was to stand on tiptoe so I could peer over her shoulder at the space beyond. The interior of the cottage was essentially one big room, divided into living areas by the use of brightly dyed cloth panels that swayed with the eddy of moving air from the open door. A vibrant green panel separated the living room from the kitchen, an electric blue shielded most of a brass bed frame from view. The windows were draped in the bolt ends of purple cotton twisted across brass hooks. I'd seen the same idea in a women's magazine in the dentist's office but had never seen it used to such effect. The furniture was a mismatched collection of wicker and castoffs, swathes of navy-and-purple cotton distinguishing the worn arms, lending continuity to the look of the place. The effect was striking and seemed to suggest boldness and confidence.

I realized, belatedly, that I hadn't come up with a cover story. Happily, I'm an old hand at lying, and I could feel one bubble up. ’’Sorry to disturb you,’’ I said. ’’I'm, uhm, looking for an apartment in the area and someone said you might be giving notice.’’

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